Technology Update

BlackBerry PlayBook is here, but it's three inches too small for advisers

It clears bar for general use, but it's no iPad-killer

May 8, 2011 @ 12:01 am

By Davis D. Janowski

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The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet is a solid device, both in general terms and in the engineering of its hardware.

Out of the box, it meets general expectations for what a tablet should allow you to do: surf the Internet over a Wi-Fi connection, including social-networking sites, play video flawlessly, play games, check web-enabled e-mail, use it as an e-reader, even listen to music.

As a total package for financial advisers or other business-oriented users, however, it remains a work in progress — albeit one with a lot of promise.

I am not going to delve deeply into the minutiae of its features here; you can find all that in my recent coverage online. I will instead focus more on the user experience.

To be sure, I had high expectations for the BlackBerry PlayBook.

“Surely,” I thought to myself, “as late as it was in coming out, and with all the hype by senior brass at Research In Motion Ltd., they will deliver a truly complete iPad-comparable product.”

Although I really like it — and so will many BlackBerry smart-phone devotees and early adopters of technology — there remain lots of loose ends. Not killers, mind you, but things that make it fall short by comparison with the iPad, the de facto gold standard for tablets.

With the PlayBook and an application called BlackBerry Bridge, BlackBerry smart-phone users not only can get Internet access when away from a Wi-Fi connection (it lacks the built-in 3G radio of the iPad) but also a much larger screen for working with their core phone applications, such as e-mail and calendars.

Even so, those same users can't currently access their BlackBerry e-mail without their phone — there is no native BlackBerry e-mail application for the PlayBook at present, though one is expected soon.

That is one example of a loose end; another is the Internet tethering feature.

It is meant to allow PlayBook owners to make a Bluetooth connection to a broadband-enabled smart phone and use the phone's Internet connection.

Although I was able to connect my iPhone 4 to the PlayBook (it paired and provided a device number, meaning the devices “saw” each other), a “no available services” message came up, indicating no connection to the Internet.

I happen to be in the increasingly common position of owning my phone while my company pays for services. Other reviewers and users have reported mixed success with this feature as well, and for most folks, the use of tethering will depend on the type of broadband contract they have for their phones.

Wi-Fi is a whole other story with the PlayBook — it works great.

Unless you are on the road a lot in sparsely populated areas with a dearth of Wi-Fi, you should be awash in connectivity choices.

The PlayBook's seven-inch screen means it can be held easily in one hand, more easily than the iPad. That makes it fairly ideal as a go-anywhere gadget.

In fact, I gave the review unit PlayBook I had received plenty of real world usage these past two weeks while I dealt with a family member in and out of the hospital. It served me very well, especially in doing Internet research and note-taking (it has a lightweight word processor called Word to Go, as well as Sheet to Go and Slideshow to Go.

Even so, for many advisers, the PlayBook's size will probably end up one of its chief limitations.

Seven inches is just too small for doing interactive client meetings with the panache I have seen advisers, wholesalers and vendors be able to pull off with the Apple iPad and its 10-inch screen.

“When it comes to the consultative selling situation, Apple and the iPad have definitely cornered the market on that,” said Todd Christy, president and chief technology officer at Pyxis Mobile Inc.

Pyxis also provides a popular mobile application development platform that allows companies to build applications quickly for most smart devices (both smart phones and tablets) including those from Apple and BlackBerry, as well as those running the Android operating system.

Pyxis has worked with a lot of companies, devices and operating systems, and Mr. Christy said that he agreed that the PlayBook was well-positioned to become a successful device.

As much as any factor, this will result from the installed base of BlackBerry Enterprise Server deployments out there — 250,000 in total, that in turn manage millions of individual BlackBerry users — something to which I have referred in my previous writing on the PlayBook.

This should gain RIM some time and leeway that other, more consumer-focused tablet vendors have lacked.


In the next few months, the PlayBook is expected to be capable of running applications built for the extremely popular open-source Android operating system.

This is exciting, because rather than a device limited to running the 25,000 applications developed specifically for the BlackBerry App World universe, the PlayBook will also be able to run, in a sort of emulation mode, more than 200,000 Android applications.

Three PlayBook models are available —16 GB ($499), 32 GB ($599) and 64 GB ($699).

Rumors abound about a larger PlayBook coming out at some point, but RIM's public relations agency wouldn't confirm them.

In conclusion, the PlayBook is a no-brainer for BlackBerry devotees desiring a tablet with plenty of potential synergy. For Apple devotees or advisers who want a tablet for client presentations and meetings, the PlayBook will be left wanting; they should go with the iPad or iPad 2 (and the many advisory applications already available for them).

And as a colleague reminded me, if all you want is an inexpensive easy-to-use reader/tablet, consider the Nook Color ($249 list).

E-mail Davis D. Janowski at


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