BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 OS: Closer, but still no cigar

RIM's updated tablet OS allows direct email and calendar access, but both tablet and OS fall behind iOS and Android devices

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But you can't copy and paste text or graphics from the Web pages displayed on the browser -- an odd limitation. The browser self-identifies as a desktop browser, so you get full Web pages when using the PlayBook. I wish there were an option, as there is on some Android devices, to change that self-identification to instead view a mobile-optimized site. There are times when a full website's design emphasizes tiny text and elements that are hard to access on a 7-inch screen like the PlayBook's.

Where the PlayBook's browser shines is in its HTML5 support: It scores 354 out of 475 points in the latest HTML5Test.com tests, beating the previous champ iOS 5's new score of 305 and the Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" score of 256.

Two ways to manage a PlayBook
One of RIM's long-standing claims to fame is its security support, through its BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and its more than 500 policies IT can apply to a BlackBerry smartphone. If you want to manage a BlackBerry PlayBook via BES, you must do so by tethering it to a BES-managed BlackBerry. Otherwise, you get just the EAS management capabilities inherent to Microsoft Exchange; this should be enough for most businesses, but not some regulated ones or for employees with very sensitive information.

The PlayBook is not yet supported by MDM tools as iOS and Android 3 and 4 are, so you can't augment those Exchange capabilities as you can with iOS and many implementations of Android. What you can do is pay more for RIM's new BES add-on, called Mobile Fusion, to manage PlayBooks directly (not via a BlackBerry tether) via BES. That capability shouldn't cost you extra but of course BES is how RIM makes its real money.

The PlayBook honors RIM's security legacy in its support for separate business and personal data partitions on the device. The business partition is both encrypted and password-secured. The Documents to Go app, for example, can work with both partitions, so users have one app to edit Word and Excel files, while keeping the business data and personal data separate. That's an elegant approach to the mixing of personal and business information endemic to BYOD. Although iOS has a similar notion, its lack of a visible file system means you can't get such a clear and accessible separation of business and personal data as the PlayBook OS offers.

The PlayBook OS supports VPNs and secure Wi-Fi, but as is the case of every non-Apple and non-Microsoft OS I've tested, it can't connect to our corporate Cisco IPSec VPN or to our certificate-based secure Wi-Fi network. My office's local IT admin also couldn't figure out why.

The PlayBook that RIM should have shipped last April
Although iPads and Android tablets are overall superior to the BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM deserves credit for coming up with a plausible competitor. It's too bad this isn't the PlayBook that shipped in April 2011, before Apple's iOS 5 and Google's Android 4. Ten months ago, the gap between the PlayBook 2.0 OS and the competing iOS 4 and Android 3 the competitors would have been wide but with a plausible chance of being narrowed in a reasonable pace. At this point, despite with the progress RIM has made, the competition has moved even further ahead.

Puttin the competition to the side, I do like how the PlayBook OS's straightforward interface (very much like the defunct WebOS's UI) stands out from the crowd and, overall, is easy to use. One exception is the unintuitive way you set advanced preferences such as VPN configuration.

Although I can't recommend the PlayBook due to its physical flaws and its limited overall capabilities, it could make a nice business communications appliance for tech-averse senior execs who don't want a full-on tablet. The BlackBerry PlayBook could find a small niche as the business equivalent of Amazon.com's simple media-and-Web tablet, the Kindle Fire, or of the old AOL's simplistic version of the Internet -- especially if RIM delivers sleeker hardware.

But if PlayBook OS 2.0 is truly what the forthcoming BlackBerry 10 reboot is based on, I'm afraid that RIM's smartphones too will end up battling the similarly narrowly functional Windows Phone 7 for the scraps that iOS and Android leave behind. As for the PlayBook, outside of a niche audience looking for the AOL equivalent of a tablet, it'll get trounced by the iPad, which even Android and I suspect Windows 8 will struggle to unseat. In that dogfight, there may be not even scraps left for the PlayBook.

This article, "BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 OS: Closer, but still no cigar," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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