It was with much anticipation and excitement that Research in Motion, arguably pioneers of practical smartphone technology, revealed their new iPad-tackling PlayBook tablet device at GSMA’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week. RIM took a significant portion of the App Planet hall at MWC and showcased an early pre-release of their new PlayBook tablet, along with selected developers who were able to demonstrate early applications. The actual operating system software is still under development, but the devices were actually there and available to play with. Final release is intended for Q1 in the US but pricing is not confirmed at this time.
The first thing to notice is how light the devices are. At 400g, they don’t weigh much more than the average smart-phone but the 7″ screen manages a comfortable 1024×600 pixel resolution which gives both space and definition. The device boasts an impressive 1GHz CPU with 1GB RAM which RIM promise will make applications “fly”, and includes both front and rear facing cameras, paving the way for a FaceTime competitor.
With the beta operating system installed and bundled applications, the device is fast and usable. iPad veterans could be seen struggling to adapt and fumbling with pinch gestures to zoom which the PlayBook doesn’t support. The PlayBook offers its own gestures, however, to minimise apps, rotate through apps, and bring up the virtual keyboard respectively, and these are easy to get used to. Annoyingly – for me at least – the virtual keyboard makes the same mistake as the iPad in failing to combine alpha and numeric characters together, instead requiring the user to shift between the two instead.
The new WebKit-based browser is slick and fast and the development version scored a promising 219 on HTML5Test, supporting the Canvas API completely. Provocatively, it also includes support for Flash 10.1, a serious win over the Apple contender. Flash video works and, in conjunction with the built-in H.264 support, which can drive an external 1080p HDMI device, ensures that there should be no Internet-based video that this device can’t view.
Flash games, such as Bloxorz work with good performance, but it’s at this point that one realises that Steve Jobs’ fifth point about Flash is quite accurate: in a lot of cases Flash apps are written without consideration for touch devices, placing a lot of user-interface significance on hover versus click interactions which are clearly not possible on a touch device. Bloxorz, in particular, needs cursor key input for which the PlayBook’s virtual keyboard doesn’t cater.
Multi-tasking, something to which BlackBerry users have long been accustomed, is not left as an after-thought either. The underlying QNX operating system seems to effortlessly juggle multiple applications around in response to the user’s demand. An interesting experiment showed a Quake demo managing 30 frames per second while the bundled YouTube app happily runs HD video and the user is able to flick between the two with a finger-gesture.
Network connectivity is wi-fi only with support for all 802.11a/b/g/n and, quite topically by recent events, I noticed that IPv6 is enabled by default. A 3G version is promised for later in the year but here the story gets quite interesting. The PlayBook itself is not a BlackBerry. This means that there is no push email, no BlackBerry Messenger and no BES/BIS connection to configure. The device is essentially an Internet tablet device with Internet applications but RIM have stated that it is possible to pair with a BlackBerry over Bluetooth in order to get the traditional BlackBerry services. This has the potential to cause quite a bit of unnecessary confusion over quite how a user gets network access: via native PlayBook Wifi? Via paired 3G?
If RIM is sensible, they will try to get away from the current mess of network provider-specific BIS with its poor support for push notifications and mailbox synchronisations, while still allowing for the BlackBerry-specific network communication for enterprise VPN connectivity and BlackBerry Messenger. I noticed through my fiddling that the PlayBook does indeed possess a PIN, the essential address token for communication on the BlackBerry network, so perhaps there is hope.
No new platform would be complete without a taster of applications to come, and there seemed to be plenty of candidates. Electronic Arts were on hand at MWC to show a speedy driving game that makes use of the internal accelerometers to allow a player to steer with the device, while Citrix showed their commitments to the business market with a concept demonstration of how a Citrix client for PlayBook might look.
The other major technology for targeting the PlayBook is Adobe Air, which is considered the native API. What is surprising, here, is that RIM is not promoting the use of the Java development model that has been so successful for BlackBerry. Instead, the PlayBook contains an Air runtime execution environment and applications are deployed as Air packages. Java users are not left out in the cold however; a Java interface is promised for some time in the future.
During the boot-camp, Sanya Kiruluka and her developer relations team confidently ran through how the mandatory Hello World app and other examples can be created using the WebWorks framework, executed in a virtual machine QNX simulator (a rather innovative idea) and deployed to production hardware. They also announced a competition to stimulate creativity by offering a free PlayBook to a selected winner who manages to design, implement and publish to AppWorld a working and qualified PlayBook application by March 15th.
It’s quite clear that application availability will play a significant part in defining the PlayBook’s success, but early indications are that the hardware base makes for a firm foundation.