The BlackBerry PlayBook

Just over a year after it was first released, the PlayBook still isn’t as popular as RIM would like it to be. RIM is in unarguably in decline. 6000 out of their 16500 global staff are expected to lose their jobs within the next few months, and it was announced today that BlackBerry has $1 billion worth of unsold stock in their warehouses. This isn’t stock that is sitting in the back room at PC World, or under the counter at Vodafone. This number is purely stock that RIM simply can’t get rid of, right after it’s been produced. And this is a sad thing, because I actually quite like BlackBerry.

The PlayBook itself

While I have never owned a BlackBerry handset, I don’t like the way they work – they’re too small and cramped and their app selection is poor. As an Android developer, I own a Nexus S developer handset from Google, and that is a phone that I love. I do, however own a PlayBook. Back in March, RIM ran another developer promotion that meant developers who ported their Android app to the BlackBerry PlayBook would receive a 16GB PlayBook free of charge, to use for development. Porting a simple app I was making for a Young Enterprise group at the time earned me the tablet for free, so this is how one got into my hands.

The PlayBook is a really interesting device. It’s got a really great hardware spec – a dual core CPU and 1GB of RAM combined with 2 HD cameras and a superb screen mean it flys along with no lag and it’s a pleasure to use. The soft touch back combined with the light weight make it fantastic to hold. So far, we have the makings of a great device. Obviously the PlayBook doesn’t run iOS or Android (like the similarly priced and similar looking Kindle Fire), it runs it’s own proprietary OS made by BlackBerry.

Apps for the PlayBook

There are relatively few apps for the PlayBook and this is one of the main problems with the device. Alec Saunders from RIM recently announced that there are 99500 apps available on the BlackBerry App World, yet only 25% of these were created with the PlayBook in mind. In contrast, there are over 200,000 apps designed for the iPad. With the recent OS 2.0 update for the PlayBook, RIM added Android app capability with a kind of virtual machine running Android 2.3.3. This move meant that thousands of additional apps could be run on the PlayBook, and people finally hoped that they would get a decent number of apps to play with. However, relatively few developers have ported their apps to PlayBook even though the process is quick and simple, and there are some apps that simply refuse to work when they’re ported. Whilst the choice of Android 2.3 was a good choice in the sense that it ensures maximum compatibility with a large number of apps, this version of Android was designed for phones. This means that tablet apps such as the BBC News app, or apps that require newer versions of Android, can’t even be ported let alone run on the device.

Pricing is also an issue in the App World. Whilst the PlayBook is clearly aimed more at businesses or professionals than consumers, that’s no excuse for the pricing of some apps. Angry Birds for the PlayBook is £5 – yet on Android it’s free.

The scarcity of quality apps is one of the biggest problems for RIM. Developers aren’t stupid – we know RIM didn’t give us these tablets to be nice. They gave them to developers in the hope that they would make some decent apps. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve not yet done any development work for RIM since I got my PlayBook, but I do intend to start, and any compatible apps that JGM Software develops for Android will be ported to the PlayBook on release day. I say compatible because the abilities of Android apps running on the PlayBook are limited – RobotiX isn’t available on the PlayBook because Android apps can’t use the PlayBook’s Bluetooth for example.

Porting an Android app to the Playbook couldn’t be simpler. The process takes less than 10 minutes and the developer support from RIM is fantastic – their Twitter account is usually a good source of help for example.

However, some modifications and performance improvements to the way the PlayBook runs Android apps could go a long way, and this feature has some serious potential. I hope to see it expanded and improved in BB10.

BlackBerry 10 OS

BlackBerry Dev Alpha

If you follow the news around BlackBerry, you can’t have failed to miss all the hype about BlackBerry 10. Seen by some as RIM’s final chance to sink or swim, this OS will run on the PlayBook and new handsets from RIM. Selected developers have received the BlackBerry Dev Alpha – a developer handset that looks a lot like a baby PlayBook. Hopefully, this will add things like BBM to the PlayBook, and improve the performance of Android apps on the device.

My thoughts on the PlayBook

This article wasn’t just supposed to be about the PlayBook – it was supposed to reflect the current state of RIM in arguably their flagship device – the PlayBook. The PlayBook really is a great device and it has a lot going for it. It’s fast, nice to hold, lightweight, good looking and the web browser is faster and renders pages better than the comparative offerings on iOS and Android.

However, there are shortcomings which BlackBerry needs to fix. The lack of apps is the biggest sticking point – for example, as of today, the most downloaded free app on the PlayBook is the “Official Holy Bible” app, whereas on other stores it’s things like Angry Birds or Facebook. Big companies are partly to blame too – the Facebook app is frankly crap, and hasn’t been updated in months. It’s also an example of an app that struggles to work when you port the Android version. The Android and iOS offerings are of a much higher standard. The same is true of Evernote, except when you port the Android app, that works a lot better.

My thoughts on BlackBerry

I really hope that BlackBerry knows what it’s doing with BB10. Their BB10 Jam events being held around the world over the next couple of months show that they’re really trying to get publicity and attention for their new platform. The worry of myself and many other tech professionals, is that it’s too little, too late for BlackBerry. The reaction to the Dev Alpha has been mixed and underwhelming. BlackBerry is counting on this release to fix everything. Share prices in BlackBerry have dropped 75% since since last year and are the lowest they’ve been in 8 years.

I really hope that this works out for BlackBerry. I’ll be doing my bit, porting my apps and recommending the PlayBook to friends and family – because I like it, I really do. But if BB10 is a flop, the future is uncertain for RIM. This affects almost every BlackBerry owner as well – services like BBM rely on RIM’s servers. This is make or break time for RIM, and the PlayBook and BB10 are key to it’s success…or eventual demise.