PlayBook lessons for BlackBerry

What lessons can RIM learn from the PlayBook that it can apply to its phones? CNET editor Nicole Lee explores that question.

When RIM introduced the BlackBerry PlayBook, it not only offered a 7-inch alternative to the iPad and Android tablets, it also offered a sneak peek into the future of RIM. Even though we think handsets like the Bold and the Torch are sleek and handsome, they're just not innovative enough. They cater to loyalists rather than attempt to woo new customers. Even the latest BlackBerry Bolds from BlackBerry World seem more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The PlayBook, however, with its innovative OS and features, may be RIM's first shot at what a next-generation BlackBerry phone will look like. Sure, a tablet and a phone are two different things, but we couldn't help but wish we could shrink down the PlayBook into a more smartphone-like size. That's why we're happy RIM has said it's bringing the PlayBook's QNX platform to its phones. The PlayBook may have received less than stellar reviews in the press, but we think there are still plenty of lessons RIM can learn from its flagship tablet and apply to its future phones.

Imagine a smaller version of the BlackBerry PlayBook.
Imagine a smaller version of the BlackBerry PlayBook. Josh P. Miller/CNET

QNX mobile
The PlayBook itself may have garnered mixed reviews, but the QNX OS is nevertheless impressive. The interface is stunning, with buttery smooth transitions and amazing multitasking. In fact, many industry pundits call this "true multitasking," which is not the case with iOS and Android. With the latter systems, you're just hiding or minimizing one task while running another. With QNX, you really are running several different apps at full throttle simultaneously, just like you would on a desktop PC.

We think QNX will look fine on a smaller 4-inch display. You won't get quite as much real estate, but the overall experience is actually pretty similar to Palm's WebOS deck-of-cards interface. The biggest hurdle, as we see it, is the PlayBook's reliance on the outer bezel to access menus and jump between open apps. This means that if RIM were to port the OS over to a smaller handset, that device would require a rather large border around the display--at least, a larger border than what we're accustomed to. Perhaps RIM could tweak the OS so that a thick bezel wasn't necessary.

The browser
The Web browser on BlackBerry OS 6 is far better than any of its predecessors, but it still doesn't offer that full Web experience many people want. The browser on the PlayBook, on the other hand, is practically indistinguishable from the one on your PC. It ships fully baked with Adobe Flash 10.2 support in the browser, so you can see all the Web's video, games, animations, and ads exactly as you would on a computer. There's also a privacy mode and the option to selectively disable cookies.

Our tablet editor, Donald Bell, did warn that the PlayBook's 7-inch size detracts a little from the browser experience, so a smaller 3- to 4-inch display might be even worse. The touch accuracy is also not quite there when selecting links. But we have to imagine that RIM will adjust this for the mobile version, or at least we hope so. Seeing as most Web sites have mobile versions these days, we think the browser will do just fine on a smaller scale. The real question is whether the phone's hardware will be able to handle such a full-fledged browser.

Not just more apps, but the right apps
When it comes to consumer smartphones, it's often the apps that sell the hardware. It is in this arena that the PlayBook is sorely lacking, and we hope RIM will find a way to get more native apps (and maybe some Android ones) on to its App World marketplace. We don't agree that an app store with thousands of apps is necessarily better than one with just hundreds, but consumers still want at least the more popular apps, like Netflix or Angry Birds. We also think not having native e-mail and calendar support on the PlayBook on launch date was a misstep. We know that's likely not going to be a problem with the BlackBerry phones, but it's still something to keep in mind.

If RIM is able to nail down the fit and finish of the OS and browser with its phones, we think the company is halfway there. After that, it just needs to focus on making great hardware and getting better apps in App World. How about you, readers? Do you think the QNX platform will be great as a mobile OS? Or is it too late for BlackBerry?

 

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