Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Blackberry Playbook


I recently had the pleasure of attending a pre launch event for the new shiny, shiny BlackBerry PlayBook - RIM's new poster boy for tablet computing. Or poster girl if you like; as my colleague commented, "It sure is pretty." But looking past the gloss, the neat little canap├ęs and the intoxicating hyperbole (or was that merlot) just what does this new toy mean to us gadget obsessed humanoids?

The short answer is I don't know. With a few technical hiccups and tight lipped responses to key questions like "what will it cost?" and "when can we get our greasy swipe, prod and pinch spanners on one?", it is simply too soon to tell.

But pre-launch demons aside, there were some real glimmers of promise.
One of the most interesting aspects of the PlayBook is the partnership between Adobe and RIM. RIM is the company behind BlackBerry products and Adobe who - as we all know - are the proud parents of Flash which is having a tough time thanks to emerging HTML 5 and school yard bullying inflicted  mercilessly by  Apple.

Adobe and RIM have teamed up to create the BlackBerry Tablet Operating System which under the hood is a hybrid of QNX - a well regarded Unix based embedded operating system - and Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime). The end product (supposedly) is ultra stable, powerful, real-time smart device platform that developers can easily create applications for using rapid development technologies like ActionScript or JavaScript.

Giving font end developers easy access to the full capabilities of the device is an interesting proposition and potentially a real enabler for great applications. Or it could be giving script kiddies enough rope to hang their fledgeling fart apps with. Time will tell. [PaaaaarpPfffffpfpfp!]

A far more exciting proposition would be if Adobe and RIM don't limit the technology to BlackBerry tablets, make it Open Source and allow the development community to take it to other devices such as TVs, Games Consoles and Media Centers. If this where to happen and then RIM and Adobe could stick it to Google Android and Apple iOS and become a defacto standard for embedded computing.

Lofty dreams aside (although I'm sure the slavering business ghouls at Adobe have dreamt up similar hypotheticals), these are some of the positives of the PlayBook.

Size

I was originally unsure of the smaller size (7 inches) but after a few visualisations (what you have to do when you can't afford whimsical purchases) this could the best for tablet form factor as it is easy to lug around, stick in your pocket or handbag. The screen is book size so is easy enough to read, surf the web and play games at its native resolution. You couldn't necessarily carry out a days work on one, but that’s not what tables are for anyway.

Media

The device has good specs that handles HD video and 3D games with ease; even simultaneously. This was demonstrated and was an impressive spectacle. App utilisation like this would obviously demolish your battery but that is the cross multi-tasking has to bear.

The Tablet has HDMI out so you can play HD video directly on TVs or projectors which means it could become a quality media centre, business presentation tool or travel companion.

User Interface

The biggest change in the user inteface is in touch sensitive bezel - the black bordering around the device. With corner swipes,  bottom up or top down swipes you can execute a number of system commands or attach custom application commands to a couple of available gestures.

The UI on the whole was very responsive with nicely set up carousels, sliding menus and contextual navigation.

Applications

As mentioned , the PlayBook allows you to build apps using Action Script, or HTML 5 and JavaScript. There are custom JS libraries which allow you to tap into the device components such as the accelerometer and back and front facing HD Cameras. The theory here is that you can build applications using the technologies that you are comfortable in with a similar effort and end result. I'm slightly skeptical about this bold promise; but then I did burn a few hours playing a JavaScript port of Quake II. I'm still waiting for the Lithium II Mod to come out to really re-live my student days.

Enterprise Applications

When it came to who the applications are for - and by extension who the device is for - I found the product stuck in a Consumer Enterprise limbo. For example, on launch you will only be able to deploy applications through the BlackBerry App Store - if they are approved. Not great for the enterprise. Secondly, to access BlackBerry enterprise services you will need to tether your PlayBook to your BlackBerry Phone to access enterprise services. Pretty rubbish for Joe Public. When faced with these questions the official line was that this paradoxes 'hadn't gone unnoticed'.

Taking a step back from the specs and the promises and the army of new devices on the march forward, all we can do is sit back and watch the battle ensue.

And in that battle, it is clear that Adobe Flash has the most to lose. It may not be able to save everyone of us, but hopefully it can save itself.

Perhaps it should be renamed the Adobe's PrayBook.

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