One of the perks of working with Mobile devices is that you can do most of your job from the comfort of your bed before the sun rises, which is exactly how my day started at 5:45 after I had hit the snooze button a few times of course. As most Canadians will know, today might actually turn out to be the day we see if RIM goes Nortel or not. As of 04:00, the PlayBook OS 2.0 has officially been available for download. Weighing in 408MB, I wasn’t going to chance it on the corporate LAN. The RIM servers seemed to hold up pretty well and I was able get the entire thing downloaded and installed before 06:30.
So what exactly was included in this 2.0 that could possibly save Mike and Jim’s pension fund? Well here is the official run down:
- Built-in support for Exchange Mail, Calendar and Contacts
- Built in support for Hotmail, Gmail, IMAP, POP, CalDAV and CardDAV
- Built-in Balance to segregate work mail (Exchange) from personal mail.
- Address Book integration of Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn
- Calendar integration with Social Feeds (above)
- Enhanced Blackberry Bridge with BlackBerry to PlayBook remote control
- A new Open On feature to open docs and media on your PlayBook or Blackberry
- Print to go, print straight from your PlayBook… or not.
- Kinda Sorta Maybe Android apps
- Mail and PIM Features
RIM is going out of its way to make the newly added Exchange ActiveSync ready feature sound like the original email revolution, but in reality these are all features that should have been in the 1.0 release last year. The unified inbox in nothing new and neither is the conversation view they have also adopted. They have done some clever things to include LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter mail, but did not go all the way to make them work for things other than mail and direct messages. The ability to make status updates from the “messages queue” would have been killer for most BlackBerry users, however you can understand the obvious omission when you stop to consider what the state on your inbox would be like if they also allowed incoming messages from social feeds.
However none of this should take anything away from the fact that they did manage to pull it off pretty nicely, even though you would expect that from the folks who actually invented mobile mail. I expected to see more even though I’m not sure what or why, email evolution has been pretty static since the launch of Gmail in 2004, the only things that seem to change are the filters and the presentation modes. But a queue is queue and you can’t really do too much on 7 inch screen to re-invent it. I’m just glad that it RIM decided to finally give it the same high quality finish as they have put into the BlackBerry over the years.
- Social Integration or Unified iLife
This too is a bit of an “also-ran” feature addition that had to be made to bring the device up to level with what is already being done on the iDevices and Androids. As stated above the unified look is the standard these days, no one ever wants to check two to three calendars in separate apps or screens before accepting an invite. I’ve mentioned this before, but unless you can see that your 5:00Pm meeting might conflict with Jack’s hockey practice or Jill’s ballet recital, the productivity quotient of the device has already failed. I’m giving the PlayBook a PASS on this one, even though they didn’t bring anything new to the tablet here.
- Bridges and Remote Control
The original idea of the BlackBerry Bridge was to allow the BlackBerry owner to securely read his email, access his calendar and contacts on the PlayBook without having to manage the device itself. As you can imagine this sounds great for the casual owner but was in fact a security and asset management nightmare for the enterprise, basically turning the PlayBook into a 16/32/64GB USB drive with a screen and network connectivity that you could not even enforce a device password for the most basic security. Now that the devices can actually be managed like the traditional BlackBerry through a BES like server software called the PlayBook Administration Server (one of three parts making up the new BB Fusion Server) the PlayBook tablets will actually be more secure. In fact, even if you don’t use any of the Fusion Server software and only use the basic MS Exchange Server with ActiveSync, you will be able to enforce security policies onto the tablets and ensure that your users have a password and that they are only storing 30 days of email on their devices. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s a good start in the right direction and possibly even an exit plan from the BES/Fusion scene, should things not go to plan for RIM (buy-out, insolvency).
So now that there is a pretty decent native client that can actually be managed more securely than the solely relying on Bridge pass through, what exactly is the Bridge useful for. Well, you would actually be surprised. One of the biggest feature changes is yet another borrow from the competition: the BB Remote feature. From our testing so far, we have been able to plug the PlayBook into a HDMI monitor (TV) and using the BlackBerry we are able to remote control the PlayBook, effectively using the touchscreen as a track pad, a little cursor even appears on the screen just as if you were working with a mouse. You could essentially use the TV as your screen and the Blackberry as the mouse, add in a Bluetooth keyboard and the Citrix client and you’re all set for some remote desktop control action. The only real issue is that the cursor can be quite small, once you have used the Apple Remote App and become familiar with on-screen prompts or the familiar blue hue around the icon/app/form element it becomes a little tedious to hunt around the screen for a small arrow. However if you’re sitting a desk about 18 inches away from the monitor then it’s actually a pretty solution for teleworking in a bind.
- Open On
The OPEN ON feature is also a pretty cool use of the Bridge, basically allowing you to scroll through the message list on your BB and then opening attachments and pics on the PlayBook… Let’s face it, this is exactly what the 7 inch tablet was designed to do. It works pretty well and has its key moments. But also taxes the battery on both devices with constant Bluetooth traffic. The original Playbook was not designed to use BlueTooth 4.0, so the two radios will still be a little power-hungry and of course you are limited to a 30 foot radius as opposed to Apple’s Remote App and Keynote Remote which also work over WiFi and can therefore control your devices all over the house. The BlackBerry Bridge remote was designed to be used in boardrooms and living rooms with the user basically aiming his BlackBerry at his PlayBook. Media control is difficult to use and there is no real Airplay competitive feature here.
- Print to Go
Then there is the Print to G0 application which most of us in the office automatically assumed was going to be remote printing app for the PlayBook to rival AirPrint. Sadly it’s not, it should have been called PDF to Go as all this application does is listen out for the desktop client on the same WiFi network, it’s not even Internet enabled, and then receive documents you send it. Print to go is not even in the same league as DropBox when it comes to file sharing either. This was a real let down for us, the DataViz team was truly pioneering back in the day, but since they were bought out by RIM, innovation has been stagnate. When you compare Docs to Go to Apple’s Pages or even Google Docs you really feel like you are going back to the Office 2000 days of document creation and editing. All new releases seem to be focused on trying not to break MS Office file rather than creating intuitive and creative documents than can also be exported, rather than must be exported. To be honest the best export feature of Apple’s Pages and Keynote is the PDF export. That way I create the document I want and then make sure everyone on the internet gets to see it my way. I have another workflow for collaborative docs, but explain that another time.
This is where I was hoping that the OS 2.0 release would finally get it right and make a true play for the enterprise market. Unfortunately, RIM still won’t listen to their customers or respect the industry standards even while using Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). With most EAS policies, you can force the user to set a device password as well as enforce a full security wipe should the device get lost. These are the two basic features that allow a device into most corporate short lists. However, even though the PlayBook does take advantage of the EAS policies to serve up Exchange mail natively, it does not apply it as it should. In fact it get rather creative, let me explain. When you set up an Exchange mail account on the device, it automatically considers it to be WORK, even if it was a GMail account or a personally hosted Exchange account, so it then applies a Balance sandbox around the PIM apps and segregate all the data from the rest of the PlayBook. This makes the mail, calendar and contacts apps a little more secure by apply a lock to the app should your device time out. However it does not apply the EAS policy to the device itself, in fact it actually tricks it into thinking that it is secure and reports back that is has been “Applied in Full”. When in fact, there is no device password, no device lock, and no device time out and no remote wipe. To test this out, I decided to perform a remote wipe just like I might do if i had left the device in coffee shop or a cab. So after logging into our corporate OWA page and selecting the device, thinking twice and then finally hitting the remote wipe button. I stared at the device half expecting to see a big lock screen and then blackness. When in fact all that happened was that work mail started disappearing from the unified inbox one at a time until eventually all I was left with was my GMail & Twitter DM’s. All that had happened was what we call a Selective Wipe, the only thing that was removed from the Playbook was my exchange account and nothing else. All the pics I took, movies I uploaded, documents I created were still there and still not password protected and STILL available to anyone who would stumble upon my device. So not only did the PlayBook lie to Exchange about its policy adherence, it totally ignored the wipe request and interpreted my intention.
I expect that the Fusion Server will probably have better control over what happens on the device since it will essentially establish BES like policies on the device. My biggest fear is that the behavior I experienced with Exchange is actually the intended behavior for all work mail accounts and that the Fusion Server will only do partial/corporate management leaving personal data at risk.
Overall Rating 5/10
I only giving this OS release half marks because it’s a year late and only brings the PlayBook up to the same standard as an Android Honeycomb tablet. Native mail, contacts and calendar clients are a big plus, but totally disregarding the security requirements pushed down to the device is a major minus. The new Apps and pretty decent but nothing groundbreaking: Bridge Remote is nice for presentations and playing on the couch but still miles away from what Apple, Samsung DNLA and even Microsoft are doing in this space.
If you bought the PlayBook during the fire sale and are still using it today, you are going to be a little relieved that your gamble paid off. Yet, I am convinced that this OS will not be enough to get new folks buying into the platform at full price. The other issue is that hardware itself is already pretty decent so there is not much room for them to improve the experience without paying some serious attention to the OS and the apps they put on it. A colleague of mine is already calling it one step forward, two steps back; i see it more like trying to run up a downwards moving escalator.