While tech experts and analysts are impressed with Research In Motion's long-awaited update to its PlayBook tablet, many aren't optimistic it will be enough to prop up the BlackBerry-maker, which was hard hit by outages, product delays, as well as a plummeting stock price last year.
The update coming in February, 10 months after the PlayBook was first released, was unveiled at the glitzy Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show this week. A free PlayBook 2.0 upgrade will be pushed out to current PlayBook owners in February. The new features will include:
- Built-in contacts, calendar and email applications to run on the device itself without having to connect to a BlackBerry phone.
- Expanded capabilities on the BlackBerry Bridge to allow your smartphone and tablet to work better together by transitioning tasks from your BlackBerry to your tablet, opening websites, documents and pictures on your tablet from your phone, as well as using your phone as a remote control for your PlayBook.
- The capability to sync profile information from your connected LinkedIn and Twitter accounts.
- A video store catalogue with thousands of movies and TV shows as well as thousands of other applications available from partners.
- Access to Google's Android apps, which can be ported over, as well as other new apps that the company is getting developers to build software for, which it has promised for the second half of 2012.
The built-in email and contact integration with LinkedIn are key updates, Donald Bell of CNET.com wrote in a blog post.
"Needless to say, the PlayBook's non-corporate customers found the lack of a basic email app (on the earlier version) to be puzzling…Still, it's a surprisingly subtle update that comes at a time when interest in the now nine-month old product is seemingly flat."
RIM needs to get more aggressive with its update if it wants the PlayBook to be a success, he adds.
Damon Poeter of PCmagazine.com says the update is superior to the version rolled out prematurely last year, calling it "a nifty bit of technology."
"As you tool around on an upgraded PlayBook, the interface isn't glitchy and jumpy like it has been up until now," he wrote in a recent blog post.
"RIM's Bridge technology is ideal for situations where one person wants to show a group something on the PlayBook without having to mess around with the device and then pass it around.
"Our only quibble with this particular feature is that, at just 7 inches [17 centimetres], the PlayBook is really pretty small. It'd be nice if there were some other tablet form factors available from RIM, so larger groups could see what's happening on a remote-controlled PlayBook screen without huddling close together or squinting their eyes."
A real bonus is that the access to Google's Android Market for apps, "immediately cranks up app availability on the tablet to many times the number that are available in the company's own App World store," Poeter says.
However that doesn't necessarily mean PlayBooks will "start selling like hotcakes," he adds.
"RIM may have finally gotten its tablet operating system mostly right, but there's still a danger that in consumers' eyes, it will be too little, too late."
Other tech experts say the updated PlayBook may be just the thing to turn RIM's fortunes around.
In a blog post, Melissa J. Perenson of PCWorld wrote that it, "looks like it's teeming with potential"…[and] "given the current promotional pricing on the PlayBook, the tablet may actually go from being a fancy brick to a viable tablet option."
"From my early look, the update was not only worth the wait, but also may be what RIM needs to make its 7-inch PlayBook tablet more competitive and desirable."
Among Perenson's favourite features is a visual on the monthly calendar — "the busier your day is, the larger the date appears relative to other dates on the calendar; this way, at a glance, you can view which days are busiest for you."
She points out that Docs to Go has improved functionality, including PowerPoint editing, enhanced formula support, and the capability to embed images, which are unique to the PlayBook.
"You can also send content such as Web pages, photos, emails, and documents from your phone to the BlackBerry via Bridge. [You can] wirelessly turn content on your PC into a PDF viewable on the PlayBook using the Print to Go app. The print driver communicates with the PlayBook using BlackBerry ID, then prints and sends the document as a PDF," she wrote.
Perenson also likes that the PlayBook's video store is powered by Rovi for buying and renting TV shows and movies so you can use your content on other devices that support Rovi Now, she says.
Some analysts not impressed
Despite the hype, Canaccord Genuity technology analyst Michael Walker is maintaining his "hold" rating and $15 price target on RIM shares.
"While we were impressed with the improvements BlackBerry 2.0 offers, we believe it still lags competing tablet offerings. With competing OEMs continuing to introduce high-end smartphone products on more established software ecosystems and low-cost Android smartphones pressuring RIM’s international margins, we believe sales and earnings will remain under pressure until BlackBerry 10 smartphones launch in late C2012," Walker was quoted on a Forbes.com blog post.
"While we believe RIM management is focused on improved product execution during 2012, we believe new BB 10 smartphones will launch into an even more competitive smartphone market, as we anticipate innovative new Android LTE smartphones from multiple OEMs, a significant increase in Windows smartphone offerings from Nokia and other OEMs, and a refreshed LTE iPhone 5 by the time BB 10 smartphones launch."
Jennifer Fritzsche, an analyst at Wells Fargo & Co. in Chicago, says the update is "too little, too late," for the BlackBerry tablet to be a serious challenger to Apple's iPad. "I would call this a working version of what should've come last year — things that should've been there out of the box," she told Bloomberg Businessweek.
Fritzsche believes the tablet's appeal will largely be restricted to its corporate BlackBerry customers and expects the company to ship fewer PlayBook devices this fiscal quarter —100,000 — compared to 150,000 last quarter.
Meanwhile, Apple's iPad has outsold the PlayBook 74 to 1, selling 11.1 million iPads in the most recently reported period, according to Businessweek.