Today, after months of broad anticipation, RIM announced its entry into the hot tablet market.  The device, called PlayBook, was announced at the BlackBerry Developer Conference in San Francisco. I watched the live Webcast as President and Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis made the big announcement.

BlackBerry PlayBook

First, let’s review the basic feature set:

  • 7-inch LCD, 1024 x 600, WSVGA, capacitive touch screen with full multi-touch and gesture support
  • BlackBerry Tablet OS with support for symmetric multiprocessing
  • 1 GHz dual-core processor
  • 1 GB RAM
  • Dual HD cameras (3 MP front facing, 5 MP rear facing), supports 1080p HD video recording
  • Video playback: 1080p HD Video, H.264, MPEG, DivX, WMV
  • Audio playback: MP3, AAC, WMA
  • HDMI video output
  • Wi-Fi – 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • Connectors: microHDMI, microUSB, charging contacts
  • Open, flexible application platform with support for WebKit/HTML-5, Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Adobe Mobile AIR, Adobe Reader, POSIX, OpenGL, Java
  • Ultra thin and portable:
  • Measures 5.1″x7.6″x0.4″ (130mm x 193mm x 10mm)
  • Weighs less than a pound (approximately 0.9 lb or 400g)
  • RIM intends to also offer 3G and 4G models in the future.

The heart of the device is the ARM Cortex-A9 Processor, which I discovered to be the same family of processor that is in the heart of the iPad (and iPhone 4) A4 chip.  One of the most interesting capabilities of Apple’s A4 is its incredibly frugal use of battery power.  There has not been any mention by RIM of the expected battery life of the PlayBook, so hopefully they have good things to say here.

The PlayBook is smaller than most other tablets.  I’m not sure if this is good or bad.  With content consumption devices, I generally think larger is better – to a point.  I think the iPad is about as large as I’d want to go, and it’s a bit heavier than I’d like.  It’s interesting that RIM has gone smaller.  The device is still too big to fit in your pocket, so it’s not clear to me what the benefit is to this different form factor.

The video capabilities in the PlayBook are impressive.  Two HD cameras (one forward and one rear-facing) should enable high quality video chat capability.  Being able to drive full 1080P HD video through the HDMI port is very impressive.  During his keynote, Lazaridis stated you could drive 1080P out the HDMI port while watching different HD video on screen.  That’s pushing a lot of data for a tablet.  If you’re plugging your PlayBook into an HD monitor, then it’s likely you are able to plug it in to a power supply, so battery life isn’t an issue.  But I wonder what the battery life is like while watching a streamed 1080P movie.

The ability to use the PlayBook to connect to the Internet is provided through WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n) as well as secure Bluetooth.  The latter mode utilizes the BlackBerry you’re assumed to have, which essentially lets your PlayBook tether to the Internet through your BlackBerry.  When you connect using your BlackBerry, you’re basking in the safe environment provided via your BES server.

I believe you should be able to tether a PlayBook to any smartphone, including an iPhone.  I use my WiFi-only iPad in the wild by tethering it to my iPhone.  Of course, we all have to be careful how much data we pull down on these devices, lest we get a very nasty surprise in our monthly mobile bill.

The specs state that the PlayBook has 1GB of RAM.  There’s no mention of additional flash memory.  If the OS (with all the wonderful multimedia capabilities and apps) as well as the 3rd party apps and user content (movies, music) all have to live in 1GB, then things are going to get pretty crowded.  The iPad ships with 32GB and 64GB of flash.

There is also no mention of GPS capabilities in the PlayBook.  Perhaps it’s expected that your location will be delivered through your tethered BlackBerry.  But what happens when I’m sitting on the couch at home using WiFi and want to use location services to find out what movies are playing nearby?

One of the significant differentiators to the iPad (but not the Android-based tablet world) is the PlayBook’s full support of Adobe’s Flash.  I find myself of two minds about Flash.  When I surf with my iPad, the lack of Flash is often frustrating.  However, the #1 reason I have to kill and restart my Safari browser is because of a Flash-related problem.  Flash is fat, and lazy.  But it’s everywhere, and the HTML5 transition won’t completely replace it.  You absolutely notice it when it’s missing.

It will be interesting to see how RIM positions this Flash superiority relative to Apple.  Adobe is obviously a potentially strong partner for RIM in this market.  In typical Canadian fashion however, RIM described this benefit as being a “full web experience” instead of making more direct contrasts to the competition.

I’m most interested in the new operating system.  For years, I’ve heard, and to a limited extent experienced myself, the challenges of doing development for the BlackBerry.  There are a multitude of hardware devices to support.  Some are full keyboard, others not. Some are touchscreen, others not.  There are different screen sizes and resolutions.  And there are different OS versions to support across the handsets.  This makes life complicated for a developer who just wants to get his app widely deployed.

Say what you will about the Apple “Walled Garden”, but they have made life pretty damned easy for a developer.  There is the iPhone.  When Apple improves it, they do the heavy lifting for the developers by ensuring the ‘legacy’ apps run without modification on the new OS and hardware.  They don’t have the diverse user interface choices that BlackBerry developers face.  It’s just easier.  I think this focus on making the environment ‘easy’ has been instrumental in the massive adoption Apple gained upon the release of the first iPhone.

Now faithful BlackBerry developers have a new toy to play with.  And not just the hardware is different.  Short on the heels of launching BlackBerry OS6, the PlayBook is announced with a POSIX-compliant Unix-like operating system called QNX.  If you know what QNX is, then you’ll probably be impressed.  I am.  I like this OS, and just wish it was a choice RIM made in the 90s.  So what do you do if you want to have your BlackBerry “SuperApp” run on the PlayBook?  Well, I’m not sure because that hasn’t been disclosed.  Perhaps they’re discussing this at the Developer Conference this week.

The choices, as I see them are:

  1. Too bad, you need to re-write your application from scratch.
  2. Sorry, you need to make some changes, but it won’t be too onerous.
  3. The PlayBook has emulation that fully supports legacy BlackBerry Apps. It just works.

Clearly, applications work best when they’re designed to exploit the best capabilities of the platform. This is what we’re seeing in the iPad/iPhone ecosystem.  Apple has put significant effort into making sure most iPhone apps will run on the iPad, albeit with some UI compromises.

The next 12 months are going to be pretty exciting ones for those who follow the Smartphone and Tablet markets.  There is great focus and effort being invested by Apple, RIM, Google, HTC, Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and others.  I’m excluding Microsoft, because in the Mobile world, I consider them to be Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense.  You know, the one who goes through 99% of the movie not knowing he’s dead.

The result will most certainly be great advancements that will benefit all consumers.  But not everyone is going to come out of this battle as healthy as they entered it.

If the PlayBook helps to make the BlackBerry ecosystem more successful and sustainable, then I think it’s a fantastic move.  But I’m concerned about how this will play out given the challenges facing BlackBerry developers today.  If widening RIM’s focus to the tablet puts the core BlackBerry platform at increased risk, then it’s a dangerous distraction.

Embracing the Web Development model and making BlackBerry and PlayBook development less proprietary is a fantastic move.  Give developers access to the platform capabilities through APIs, and let them build Web Apps on top of them.  I’d like nothing better than to write my app once, and have it run on Android, iPhone and BlackBerry.

RIM has declared the PlayBook is the “BlackBerry Amplified”.  That’s a compelling vision, and there is much to celebrate.  But amplifiers have the ability to increase both the good and the bad in a signal.  I’m sure there are lots of smart people working in Waterloo to eliminate as much noise in that signal as possible.

It’s going to be very exciting to see how this all plays out.