- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

If tablet computing is as hot as the analysts say — tech research firm IDC says 50 million units will be sold this year — then Research in Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook, priced at $499, should have a good chance of picking up a slice of the market. (The same IDC analyst also says that Apple Inc. will remain king of Tablet Mountain.)

Well, the Ontario-based RIM has a few things going for it, not the least being a fiercely loyal customer base in business, industry and, oh, yes, the federal government. President Obama has a secure BlackBerry smartphone at his disposal, it has been widely reported, and you can’t get a higher-level fan than him.

I won’t presume to speak for Mr. Obama, but I wonder if he might be a little frustrated by the PlayBook in its present configuration. Unless it is tethered to a BlackBerry phone, you need a Wi-Fi connection to do anything online. A separate 3G wireless option isn’t available here, unlike the iPad, which is reportedly in favor among some White House staffers. There are 3,000 applications for the PlayBook, or so RIM’s publicity agency claims, but one key app promised in September, when the device was announced, still isn’t there. (More on that in a moment.)

Then there’s the swiping. As with the iPad, the “swipe” gesture is used to accomplish some things, but it’s relied on far more with the PlayBook. And you need to begin some of those swipes in the area just off the actual display part of the screen. This got old quickly, and not just for me, but also for a couple of colleagues who dropped by my cubicle for a short test drive.

Let’s call the PlayBook semi-intuitive. I learned to use it rather quickly, but it’s not as easy or friendly as the iPad’s interface. Yes, I learned the iPad (and predecessor cousins the iPhone and iPod touch) first, but, still, there must be a way to make a tablet friendlier to the user, since so many Android-based tablets have an interface much more iPad-like.

The PlayBook’s 7-inch screen is very bright and sharp, but some of the applications for which this would be most helpful seem lacking. There isn’t an “official” YouTube app for the PlayBook, unlike the iPad, but a third-party program is available as a separate download. You can get your Tetris on it, however; that somewhat-ancient game is preinstalled.

Camera quality for the PlayBook, at least indoors, is about on a par with the iPad. Sometimes you get good shots, sometimes they’re a bit grainy. There’s no card slot for memory expansion on the PlayBook, something RIM would have been very wise to incorporate. Then again, there’s no slot to import photos from an SD card, either.

Oh, and that missing app? It’s Amazon.com’s Kindle for PlayBook, software that would let Amazon’s e-book customers use a device that is rather nicely suited for the task. Amazon announced the app Sept. 27, but it isn’t here yet, and Amazon won’t say when it will arrive. (“Hey Mark, I’ll have to ask you to stay tuned,” was the uninformative response from an Amazon.com spokeswoman to an email query.)

Until Tuesday, some other “native” applications also were missing from the PlayBook — ones for email, contact management and calendar management. (The Apple you-know-what had those out of the box.) RIM announced those apps will come sometime this summer.

So let’s sum it up: RIM is asking you to spend $499 for a device that offers far fewer applications — with some critical ones omitted — and to have either a BlackBerry smartphone or spend much of your day in Wi-Fi range. For the same money, Apple’s iPad 2 offers a larger screen, exponentially more apps, and — for an extra $130 — your choice of 3G wireless options.

But RIM wants you to have faith in the BlackBerry brand and the PlayBook’s future. The last time I put that much faith in what turned out to be such a poor a playbook, Steve Spurrier’s name was on the cover.

If your world exists only in the BlackBerry realm, the PlayBook may work for you. For the rest of us, join the iPad atop Tablet Mountain. Your vista will be much better.

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