Is RIM making a mistake downplaying PlayBook apps?

RIM recently hyped the browsing power of its PlayBook tablet compared to the iPad and dissed native apps - is that a good idea in today's app-centric world?

At the Web 2.0 summit today, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie pointed out the web browsing advantages of the PlayBook as compared to Apple’s iPad. RIM also released a video demonstration comparing browser rendering of selected sites on both the PlayBook and the iPad. Both devices use a webkit-based browser and the PlayBook does indeed render the selected sites faster. RIM is also hyping the PlayBook’s support for Flash content (something that Apple refuses to include on its iOS devices).

It’s hard to dispute that the PlayBook appears to deliver faster loading and rendering of web pages than the iPad in these demos (of course, one could argue that as the PlayBook won’t ship for a few months, it’s also hard to independently confirm the results). It does appear that the PlayBook has a leg up here.

In addition to touting the PlayBook’s browsing performance, Balsillie downplayed apps compared to accessing data/content via the web. While there is a measure of truth that many dedicated apps do mirror web functionality, this could be a big flaw in RIM's approach to the tablet market.

I’m no stranger to the web app vs. native app debate. I’ve written about the pros and cons of each option when it comes to Apple’s iOS devices like the iPad and iPhone. While there are advantages and disadvantages to both approach regardless of the mobile platform, web apps simply aren’t likely to replace native apps for a lot of tasks.

Some of the tasks that web apps may be capable of handling but where users will tend to prefer native apps include:

  • News reading (be with a dedicated app for publications, RSS feeds, or Google Reader)
  • Social networking (particularly if an app can integrate multiple services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn)
  • Office-type document viewing, editing, and creation
  • Project management, task management, and CRM
  • Reference sources and general reading (books in particular)
  • Access to collaborative tools like SharePoint and Basecamp
  • Access to remote file systems (I’ll grant here that the iPad isn’t great at file management, particularly on the device)
  • Time and cost management (particularly important for freelancers, consultants, and legal professionals)
  • Mindmapping tools
  • Mobile commerce and cost estimating solutions
  • Navigation
  • Remote access and control of a PC or virtual desktop
  • Remote network and systems administration
  • Gaming (though it remains to be seen how relevant gaming is to RIM’s primary markets)

I’m not really making this case in favor of the iPad or against the PlayBook (which will likely ship with a selection of available apps). But, I am making the case in favor of native apps for a lot of business and consumer activities. Well-designed native apps are always likely to be a preferred choice by users whenever possible. They are stored on the device, don’t require a network connection, and generally offer better experiences.

Setting the iPad and the PlayBook aside, this is one reason some users are hesitant about the Galaxy Tab and other Android devices as most apps designed for Android are not designed for tablets and don’t display particularly well on them (yes, Gingerbread is expected to help improve that situation).

So, while I acknowledge that the PlayBook’s web performance appears to be superior to the iPad’s at the present time (remember the PlayBook will ship sometime close to the iPad’s one year anniversary, which likely means a newer iPad model will be forthcoming), it seems to me that RIM is missing the larger picture with this demo and message. Apps will play a big part of any tablet or smartphone platform’s success and should be a major focus of any message a manufacturer sends about a device.

Agree or disagree? How important is browser speed and Flash to you in a tablet? How important are apps? Let us know in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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