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David Zax

A View from David Zax

The BlackBerry PlayBook Tries Again

It’s the thought that counts.

  • February 23, 2012

When Apple launches a refresh of its tablet, the earth fairly shakes. Speculation gives way to actual specs, and the tech blogosphere erupts in excitement, discussing what industry will be disrupted next. Will the new camera transform communication? Will the higher-resolution screen transform publishing? What new feature will seize the Apple partisans yet again with delight?

When RIM launches a refresh of its tablet, the most exciting thing that can be said is, “It has email!”

Perhaps the comparison is unfair; BlackBerry isn’t releasing a wholly new tablet this week, but rather simply a new version of its operating system, available as a free over-the-air update. Even so, it seems almost comic in this era of techno-futurism that the mere addition of a native email client to your tablet should count as international news.

Let’s get you caught up, in case you don’t remember the frustration that surrounded the BlackBerry PlayBook’s original launch. Though the 7-inch tablet had formidable specs, one of the most basic features expected of such a device–a native email client–was only available for those who already had a BlackBerry smartphone and paired the devices.

It was a bad move. A Google search for “‘BlackBerry PlayBook’ sucks” today turns up 350,000 results. Some of those aren’t even references to the original launch, but to the new update as well. As ReadWriteWeb puts it, rather starkly, “Sorry, RIM: The Playbook Still Sucks.” Writes David Strom, “We have a company that made its name in messaging (RIM) that took a year to deliver a substandard email app to its tablet.”

CNET is a little kinder, highlighting some of the update’s strong points: Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn integration with the calendar and contacts apps, for instance, and a nifty remote control feature. But the sober Don Reisinger admits that even some RIM die-hards will necessarily be disappointed: “they’re not getting everything. BlackBerry Messenger, which allows users to instant-message each other from one BlackBerry device to another, is still absent from the software.”

RIM has a new CEO, who admittedly is something of a cipher. Given that the PlayBook is reportedly losing the company hand over fist, why doesn’t he just axe the product? Some analysts offered Bloomberg BusinessWeek a theory in December: the PlayBook is essentially an expensive showcase to prove to developers that their BBX OS is worth programming for. “You can’t kill it,” one of them said. “The PlayBook is all they have to show developers, they don’t have a smartphone yet.”

And so that rumored BBX smartphone (“London”? “Surfboard”?), some details of which emerged in November, really can’t come too soon.

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