BlackBerry PlayBook hands-on

RIM talks up user experience as PlayBook goes public

The BlackBerry PlayBook is nearing its final build with fully working tablets on public show at Mobile World Congress and one stand representative going so far as to refer to a PlayBook as "my own". All that's left, we're told, is battery optimisation - something that's actively being worked on.

At Mobile World Congress today RIM announced two new PlayBook models to add to the previously announced WiMax and LTE BlackBerry tablets. By the end of this year there will be four PlayBooks on offer globally, the first being a WiMax-enabled model launching on the Sprint network in the US this summer. The remaining three tablets will launch worldwide in the second half of the year.

The PlayBook will be important in driving innovation, RIM's UK managing director Stephen Bates told PC Advisor in an exclusive interview. He believes the 7in-screen PlayBook tablet is set for a similar success as the BlackBerry handsets with which it is intrinsically linked. More BlackBerry handsets were sold in the last financial quarter in the UK than any other brand.

Bates describes the current BlackBerry user base as "an easy win for us". RIM sold 130 million BlackBerry units last year and has 33 million BlackBerry Messenger users. Some 12 percent of its global revenue derives from the UK, so it's no surprise to hear RIM describe the UK as "a priority market".

However, the PlayBook will not play nicely with other smartphones. A BlackBerry handset will be required in order to access corporate email from the PlayBook, though Hotmail, Gmail and other webmail accounts will be accessible via the tablet's browser.

BlackBerry PlayBook hands-on

In our hands-on trial of the PlayBook today we were able to have multiple applications running at once, including the BlackBerry web browser, the photo slideshow app, music and a game. To move between apps on the PlayBook you must swipe a digit vertically to get back to the app selection on the home page. A nice touch is that currently running apps are displayed as an array below the current one, so you can keep half an eye on an email or an important news announcement you're expecting while browsing through your music collection or editing a document.

The PlayBook will come preloaded with its own lightweight document editing suite in the form of Docs To Go. RIM bought the mobile document editor from Dataviz last year and says it has optimised the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation apps within it for use on the PlayBook. Users will be able to receive a document over their BES-secured email, download it to their PlayBook tablet and make minor edits to its contents before using the tablet to present a sales pitch or report to clients. Alternatively, the PlayBook's screen can be used by the presenter while the same screen is displayed on a larger monitor via the tablet's HDMI-out port.

The 7in-screen tablet will support 1080i video playback, has both a 5Mp main camera and a 3Mp front-facing camera and come with 1GB of internal storage, but has a microSD card slot for additional memory. It runs off a 1GHz dual-core processor and weighs 425g.

In order to maintain the solid security credentials that the mobile platform is known for, the PlayBook will use a service known as BlackBerry Bridge to provide a secure, Bluetooth-paired connection between the smartphone and tablet. In this way the corporate connection administered from the BlackBerry Enterprise Server will not be compromised. Bates says the same BES server and secure email security policies will be imposed on the PlayBook as on a BlackBerry handset.

The PlayBook will then offer the superior screen, multitasking and HD video playback that is not practicable on a smartphone. RIM is also keen to stress the PlayBook's "web fidelity". "The web as it was meant to be", Bates called it. And in what will be an important distinction between the PlayBook and some other tablets, notably the Apple iPad, apps written in Adobe AIR will be able to be ported from one platform to another in a matter of hours. This could be a crucial difference for app makers who find success on one platform and want to replicate it as quickly as possible on another.

Surprisingly, RIM doesn't seem to be gunning for current Nokia users who may not welcome the switch from Symbian to a new mobile platform. Asked for a reaction to last Friday's announcement that Nokia is to foresake the Symbian mobile OS for Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform, Bates reiterated his point that RIM will continue to focus on ensuring the PlayBook and the BlackBerry smartphone platform deliver the required level of user experience.

Email, apps and BlackBerry messaging

RIM says it now has 100 markets for AppWorld, the app store for BlackBerry owners. It has just added worldwide support for mobile operator payments with Telefonica (O2 in the UK), T-Mobile and Vodafone. This allows for billing on a device. An important adjunct to this is BBM Extensions. These allow users to gift apps to friends via the secure BlackBerry Messenging service and allows the transfer of mobile payments. Bates characterised a typical transaction as one where a parent is able to remotely top up the credit on their teenager's BlackBerry handset or to gift them a game app. As yet there is no set ceiling for the amounts that may be credited in this fashion, though that's sure to be addressed shortly.

BBM has become one of the focal points of the BlackBerry platform, allowing secure messaging between friends (users share the unique handset identifier, neatly sidestepping spam and the issue of unwelcome contact by strangers). In creating the PlayBook, RIM had to make sure it met "the fundamentals of the BBM messaging platform and the BlackBerry Experience), explained Bates.

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Rosemary Hattersley

PC Advisor (UK)
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