Debuting the BlackBerry on stage at the RIM developers conference, after months of speculation, rumors, and hype, RIM's Mike Lazaridis noted it was the "first professional tablet." Be that as it may, it's definitely a swipe at the iPad, which many commenters have suggested is more of a consumer media consumption machine, despite an impressive uptake in enterprise markets which was recently enough to cause city analysts to up their Apple stock predictions. (RIM, remember, was already on a high after quarterly earnings jumped a surprising 68% from the same quarter last year.)
What's inside RIM's PlayBook? Defeating some of the predictions, it's actually quite a hot beast. The CPU is a dual-core 1GHz unit based on an ARM Cortex A9 architecture, and its screen is a 7-incher like many of the other upcoming iPad challengers. There's full multitouch and "gesture" support, 1GB of RAM and twin HD cameras—one facing forward for Web chat and videoconferencing reasons, and one facing back. The front-facing cam is three megapixels, and the rear is a five-megapixel one, and though RIM's press release seems to hint that both can do "HD" video recording, it's a little ambiguous. There's Wi-Fi N compatibility, Bluetooth 2.1, a micro USB slot (for standardized cell phone charger compatibility and syncing) and "charging contacts," which we assume are ready for a customized docking system. It also weighs "less than a pound" and has HDMI out for full 1080p video support.
Glaring omissions in today's announcement include battery life, price—both huge factors for iPad—and a specific on-sale date ("early 2011" is all RIM is saying).
The PlayBook is running a new "BlackBerry Tablet OS" with support for symmetric multiprocessing and "true multitasking"—a hint that its multitasking powers are in some way more "complete" than the iPad's, which relies on clever task-sharing on the single-cored A4 chip and won't run multitasking at all until the new iOS4 version is iPad compatible. RIM notes it's suitable for teams or an "army of one" and remarks that it's "designed to give users what they want" (rather than what RIM decides they should get), so there's even mention of "uncompromised Web browsing," which means it'll play Flash websites. Suddenly Apple's backtracking on its Flash policy makes more sense.
In fact, with the inclusion of Flash, Adobe Mobile Air and HTML-5, RIM is really taking the battle to Apple—thus far the PlayBook may even be the most serious rival to the iPad we've seen. Even that rumored, and seemingly crippling need to be tethered to a BlackBerry smartphone isn't quite as limiting a fact as it may seem since it's optional and is merely a Bluetooth-enabled "pairing" system that brings all the usual secure BlackBerry comms benefits to the PlayBook. RIM even touts the Flash game compatibility, something the iPad lacks, and pushes the new WebWorks app system, which means apps developed for the PlayBook will also play on BlackBerry 6 smartphones—a mirroring of the iPad/iPhone app situation.
There's just one worry: That 1GB of memory seems astonishingly limited given that there's no word on SD card expansion. RIM does note that additional features and specs are being finalized and "will be shared on or before the date this product is launched in retail outlets." It's also Wi-Fi-only on launch, and 3G and (excitingly) 4G units will be available "in the future." This last hint may agrees with its promised U.S. launch date in early 2011, as it's unlikely RIM would update the design significantly within the first year, and 2011 is when we expect the 4G networks to really kick into mainstream gear. International roll-outs are scheduled in "(calendar) Q2," and that's interesting. Because that pitches the PlayBook in a head-to-head battle for what we expect will be the iPad 2.0—due at about the same time, and with upgraded specs that are currently just a fantasy but which may surpass the PlayBook's (especially if the engineers at Cupertino are still finalizing them right now).
All of this leaves us gasping slightly, because did RIM just pull off a bit of a coup? Did it just reveal a seriously cutting-edge tablet PC that's among the leaders of its field, thanks to the BlackBerry heritage, Flash, and its potential army of interested enterprise customers? Given that we'd begun to worry RIM was looking slightly doomed in the smartphone game, it's somewhat refreshing to read about the PlayBook.
Update: We've now got a more detailed post, including spec-for-spec comparisons with PlayBook's peers. Check it out.
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