BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 review: An enterprise evaluation

Apps aren't everything; if they were, I think RIM would be hurting even more. But the Android Player has a ton of potential to boost the overall PlayBook and BlackBerry 10 app catalogue, and I think RIM needs to find a better way to tap that potential. One way would be to remove or address some of the restrictions that keep all Android apps from being compatible with the Android Player.

BES and BlackBerry Mobile Fusion

Because the PlayBook doesn't connect to existing versions of BES software, IT will need to upgrade to BlackBerry Mobile Fusion--which is the "next generation of BES," according to Alan Panezic, RIM's VP of enterprise software--in order to manage and secure PlayBooks the way they currently manage BlackBerry handhelds via BES. And they'll also have to upgrade their BES software to the latest version (v5.0.3) if they want to manage PlayBooks and pre-BlackBerry-10 devices via one central console. And even though doing so will offer IT a new, cleaner UI and some additional features--Mobile Fusion will soon support iOS and Android management, as well--that still means IT shops must dish out some cash for upgrades.

It's unfortunate that the PlayBook can't just connect to current versions of BES out of the box, because IT could then support it using the software they already have. But because RIM's PlayBook OS and the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS have new, different software foundations, RIM wasn't able to make them compatible with the current BES software. (Read more details on this new relationship from Alan Panezic.)

And because the PlayBook now supports ActiveSync, a few things may change on the back end for administrators. PlayBooks, and upcoming BlackBerry 10 devices, that connect to corporate resources via ActiveSync will not send data through RIM's Network Operations Center (NOC) as traditional BlackBerry smartphones have in the past.

This fact has a number of implications for IT, most notably that BlackBerry services won't use the same data compression technology as they did in the past, which could be an issue for international travelers who roam on different cellular networks. Roaming data can be very pricey in these cases, so the old data compression methods had the potential to save significant cash for workers who frequently travel internationally.

PlayBook Browser, Keyboard and Lack of Cellular Connectivity

One major complaint I have with the BlackBerry PlayBook browser is that it crashes frequently, often when I have multiple tabs or other applications open. And the browser doesn't give me any option to restore the previously opened tabs. Overall, the PlayBook browser is a great tablet browser--it beats out the currently available iPad and the Chrome beta for Android 4.0 in the general HTML5 test--but the fact that it crashes so often greatly reduces its value.

Overall, I'm a big fan of the new PlayBook keyboard that ships with OS 2.0; however, when I have to unlock the PlayBook or the "work" apps, I have to enter in my password, and the new row of numbers atop the keyboard overlaps the password entry box, blocking the "Cancel" and "Unlock" buttons. This is a minor gripe, as I can click the "enter" arrow on the keyboard to confirm my password, but it still frustrates me, and I wish RIM had moved the password box up on the screen to address the issue.

My final complaint relates more to the PlayBook hardware than software, but it's a major issue that's keeping the PlayBook from competing with today's leading tablets: Despite RIM's February 2011 promise to deliver 4G versions of the PlayBook, no cellular PlayBook is available to date.

BlackBerry PlayBook Review: Conclusion

So, is PlayBook OS 2.0 too little too late?

It could be. The PlayBook is now a very solid tablet for BlackBerry owners and non-BlackBerry owners alike, but the hardware is a year old, it's still not available with cellular network support, and Apple just dropped the price of the mega-popular iPad 2, to $399, and announced the new iPad, available on March 16.

However, I'm honestly a big fan of the PlayBook. I love the size. It's durable. It has a number of great enterprise features that set it apart from other tablets. And the new software is, for the most part, quite functional and a joy to use.

Would I recommend the PlayBook to the average user looking for a solid tablet option? Probably not, unless the PlayBook was heavily discounted by 50% or more. Over the past year, I've been very hesitant to recommend the PlayBook to people who ask me for advice on tablet purchases, unless they had a BlackBerry. Now I'm hesitant because I fear it may take RIM another year to release the next major software update.

RIM will likely update the PlayBook hardware within the next six months or a year, or maybe even release a larger PlayBook tablet, and I might be more likely to recommend one of those devices because they'll presumably be much more "modern," hardware-wise. But by that point, PlayBook 2.0 might feel behind the times. Which is why it's so (so) important for RIM to keep the software, and hardware, updates coming at a swift pace--something the company hasn't done in the past.

Would I recommend the PlayBook to enterprises looking to deploy tablets? Absolutely I would. The PlayBook is a solid, sturdy tablet option for business users, and along with its new ActiveSync and BlackBerry Mobile Fusion support, it's one of the most easily managed and secure tablets on the market.

RIM's real problem today, and the PlayBook's problem too, is perception. The fact that RIM took so long to deliver this solid update led to generally mediocre reviews and negative word of mouth. That definitely hurt consumer confidence in the company, which has already been degraded over the past couple of years. And then there's the fact that RIM promised 4G PlayBooks more than a year ago, but has yet to deliver.

Today, the average consumer might feel hesitant to embrace a RIM product because of that negative market perception, whether or not that perception is the reality. And, unfortunately, I think that conclusion answers the Too Little too late? question.

This story, "BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 review: An enterprise evaluation" was originally published by CIO.

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