PlayBook: The Mullet of Tablet Computing

The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet isn't just a mouthful to say -- it's also a Hail Mary option for device designer Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) . Unfortunately, it looks like a fumble right at the snap. Maybe RIM needs a new center.

What's the scoop?
While I haven't gotten my paws on a PlayBook in person, reviews across the Internet are pretty one-sided:

  • RIM seems to have rushed the thing out the door, expecting to fix major flaws with software patches later on. The compatibility layer for Android apps is missing at launch, though that was supposed to be a major selling point; likewise, the tablet doesn't have dedicated email and calendar apps yet.
  • The PlayBook tries so hard to be both business and party that it fails to be either. It's the mullet of tablet computers.
  • The Bridge system that brings enterprise-class messaging to the tablet is too dependent on having a BlackBerry phone available -- your mail is never stored on the tablet itself, so you're out of luck reading it if the phone runs out of batteries or something.

As Slate puts it, "The bigger problem is RIM's apparent belief that the only way to make a secure device was to make an unfriendly device." That's akin to how Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS  ) treats its customers as walking security risks rather than as adults with some sense (and money to spend). If you want on-the-fly email, you can always fire up a browser and access your web-based accounts that way, says RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

The PlayBook's hardware is impressive thanks to a high-end ARM (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) processor by Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) and a fully decked-out collection of bells and whistles. Even the screen looks great, despite having a grainier resolution than the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPad line.

But the silly thing is unpolished enough to keep regular consumers at bay, and it's hardly the ironclad workhorse you'd need in a large-scale enterprise deployment. By trying to please everybody, RIM missed just about every mark. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Apple already cover everything RIM is trying to do here, and they tend to do it better.

It's not unanimous!
TheStreet reviewer Anton Wahlman carries a torch for RIM, calling the negative sentiments "unfair" and "contradictory." Wahlman notes that Apple launched the first iPhone without any apps at all, and that product line is doing more than alright.

Well, that was then and this is now: Apple and others have set a high bar for RIM to clear, and it didn't happen. A better comparison is probably the Palm Pre, which launched to much fanfare but atrocious third-party software support, and eventually sent Palm to the great scrap heap in the sky. Palm lives on as another unproven tablet platform for Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) .

Where do we go from here?
Consumers and corporations will settle the matter with their wallets, of course. In the meantime, RIM remains the same old, obstinate company that prays to be included in the mobile computing revolution it helped start -- but refuses to earn it by doing anything too drastic.

The stock looks cheap by traditional metrics, especially when you factor in current growth rates. But that growth train is headed for a brick wall in the not-too-distant future, and a wholesale change of management seems like the only way to prevent a complete crash. The PlayBook does nothing to change that outcome.

The best way to find out where RIM is going is to add the stock to your Foolish watchlist. You'll get instant access to the latest Foolish analysis of RIM and other mobile masters as it happens, and it's a 100% free service:

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on Apple. The Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Texas Instruments. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2011, at 7:23 PM, vulcan747 wrote:

    Anders: I have a more accurate heading for you 2nd paragraph.......Where's the POOPER SCOOPER?

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2011, at 7:49 PM, marv08 wrote:

    While I find most of the article agreeable, I have a problem with the "RIM remains the same old, obstinate company that prays to be included in the mobile computing revolution it helped start -- but refuses to earn it by doing anything too drastic" part.

    Actually they have done something drastic. They went to an entirely new combination of embedded device OS and modern GUI in almost no time (once they got started). The problem here is not a lack of ambition (or pressure), it is that it took them far too long to find a possibly viable road after the iPhone introduction in 2007 (wasting most of that time in denial). Apple works on iOS since at least 2004, RIM bought QNX in April 2010. Whoever thinks that this can be recovered (while simultaneously improving developer platform, content catalog, app and content stores), must be nuts. They are and will remain behind. Their chance would have been to find a niche (e.g. "enterprise") and excel in it. They decided to go for the "first professional playbook" instead - a device without an identity and requiring too much to please anybody, if there is no time to do it right.

    A tablet without PIM applications is inexcusable, and there is not a single valid justification for it. This device should not ship, and it should not have been distributed to a myriad of reviewers, most of them all too happy to beat RIM, and even happier about RIM making it so easy. A waste of perfectly good hardware.

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2011, at 8:07 PM, peekel wrote:

    It's definitely canadian, eh -- dull, barren, and chunky.

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2011, at 10:10 PM, daveraj wrote:

    Yawn........... Like listening to a Red Sox fan tell me about the Yankees.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2011, at 12:39 AM, BR14 wrote:

    I suggest you get your hands on one and make your own mind up.

    It does help if you already have a BlackBerry of course.

    If you do, the device is fantastic. If not, ah well never mind.

    If rather than lugging a 10" tablet around, you need to be mobile and want a smaller tablet, then by all means compare the Playbook to other 7" tablets.

    For those who need media, browsing, email, presentation and business apps, in my opinion the Playbook beats all comers.

    For games, standalone email client, drawing pictures or fart apps, you're better off with an iPad.

    You'll look like a dork half the time you use it, but at least you'll have a million apps to download and while away the hours while you wait in line for the next delivery from God.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2011, at 12:59 AM, iphonerulez wrote:

    I respect RIM for at least going with QNX unlike those other Android cookie-cutter tablets. In a way, RIM is helping Apple by slightly slowing down Android's rapid growth. I'm not too certain about RIM going with a 7" display, though. It appears that most companies are eventually going to go with larger display tablets. Maybe it will just take RIM some time to sort out the PlayBook. I'm fairly certain that most tablet vendors never took the amount of time that Apple took to get the iPad ready and that's why so many tablets seem unfinished.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2011, at 7:36 AM, gslusher wrote:

    "Well, that was then and this is now"

    I've tried to point that out to the RIM fanboys (they have to be guys, based on the way they write like a 12-13 yo boy). If the PlayBook were the first modern tablet, buyers might tolerate a few missing pieces, as they did with the original iPhone (e.g., no copy and paste). However, the PlayBook isn't the first, the second, the third, nor even the tenth tablet since the original iPad. (iPad 2, Galaxy, Xoom, ViewSonic, several by Asus, Dell Streak, Superpad, Velocity Micro, several by Archos, Coby Kyros, Zenithink, eLocity, etc.) It's competing with the second-generation iPad, pretty much the PlayBook's equal in hardware specs (but probably a better, faster GPU). (Don't scream about the camera unless you've taken a few hundred photos with a device the size and shape of a tablet. It's not fun.) The PlayBook won't be displayed by itself: it will probably be very near the Xoom, Galaxy, and iPad at Best Buy, for example. It's roughly as if two auto dealers were next to each other. One had shiny brand-new Camrys. The other had a similar car, but the rear seats, windshield, and hood were missing. The manufacturer promised that they would be fixed sometime later. Oh, and there was no gas tank. You had to have another car and run a hose from it to the new car. Which do you think people would buy?

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2011, at 9:10 AM, dundundundun wrote:

    really confused. I have playbook. ALL the reviews say it doesnt have "native" or "dedicated" email. What does this mean? Cause it has everything the iPad has. Can a Appleseed set me straight? Cause the way I see it, it has every email capability the iPad does + the bridge (if/when).

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2011, at 9:12 AM, DrRoberts1 wrote:

    Ya gotta just love a numb skull that posts a review on the internet without ever touching the product, let alone actually using it. If there was a charge for each word blogged, this kind of drivel would dry up in a frickin' New York nanosecond

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