Long-awaited RIM PlayBook software update released

It took almost a year, but Research In Motion has finally updated its PlayBook tablet with features it believes will appeal to business users looking for a 7-inch mobile device.

Early this morning the long-awaited version 2.0 of the tablet’s operating system was released to an immediate rush of downloads. On Crackberry.com there were some complaints of sluggishness with the 400 MB download, perhaps because of the load on RIM’s servers, with one poster saying it was taking more than an hour. Others

PlayBook OS 2.0 includes an integrated calendar and email application, the biggest missing feature critics complained of when the PlayBook was released last April.

Almost as significantly for corporate users, the first version of RIM’s BlackBerry Mobile Fusion management software was released, which gives IT managers the power to control PlayBooks and encrypt data on it the way data is encrypted on BlackBerrys. Soon Mobile Fusion will include the ability to control mobile devices using Android and Apple iOS handhelds and tablets, making it a true mobile device management platform.

Finally, OS 2.0 will include an emulator allowing users to run Android applications, which may attract thousands of Android developers to port their apps to PlayBook. However, there is a caveat – they may not be able to directly sell their apps through BlackBerry AppWorld.

PlayBook OS 2.0 “gives RIM a fighting chance of [enterprise] share gains in what is predominantly an Apple-centric market for media tablets,” said Kevin Restivo, a senior mobile research analyst at IDC Canada.

The upgrade has been available for some time in beta, and Restivo was briefed on it at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “It has a markedly better performance” than the operating system has given until now,” he said. “It’s not a me-too product,” he added, explaining that the upgrade’s unified messaging and social media integration is a “tight experience.”

“It’s not just about putting email on it,” he said. RIM has “clearly taken it the next step.”

Still, he acknowledged that RIM and other tablet makers are still in an uphill battle against Apple’s iPad.

Kunal Gupta, CEO of Toronto-based mobile application developer Polar Mobile, which has written some 40 PlayBook apps, was cautious about whether the update will have an impact on his business.

“Businesses will need to see it, to feel it and understand the benefits of it,” he said in an interview, “how it will interact with their customers and readers.”

On the one hand, he said, consumers have spoken and are going to Apple – and businesses want to reach customers.

“What we’ve seen more and more,” he added, “is business acknowledging they need to extend beyond (Apple’s) iOS in iPhone and iPad. They understand their readers/users/customers are carrying multiple devices. Unless they’re cross-device they’re not going to speak effectively across their user base.”

RIM [Nasdaq: RIMM] has been trying to catch Apple and Android out by discounting the price of PlayBooks since December, and giving away PlayBooks to Android developers.

Apple may take another leap against competitors next month when, if speculation is true, it releases the third version of the iPad. Its lead over the competition may stretch if there’s a wireless version that links to the latest high-speed LTE data networks.

PlayBook has yet to release tablets that can do more than use Wi-Fi.

From RIM’s perspective, OS 2.0 is a”very significant update,” said David Heit, director of BlackBerry software product strategy. “It comes with a lot of features organizations have been looking for: Secure email and calendaring, and a secure corporate perimeter that allows organizations to encrypt corporate data.” Mobile Fusion also adds corporate management services for PlayBook, he added, through a feature called BlackBerry Balance. Balance lets users have an encrypted corporate data side and an unencrypted personal data side to their BlackBerry devices.

“You’re going to see a lot of people pleased to see the features we’ve built in,” he said.

One question is whether OS 2.0’s features will impress application developers, a critical audience for any mobile platform. Many users make tablet decisions based on the number of applications available on a platform. BlackBerry AppWorld lags behind Android and Apple.

At a recent BlackBerry developers conference, the company boasted that its AppWorld (which includes apps for PlayBook and BlackBerry handhelds) has more paid downloads than Android Market, and is second only to Apple in profitability. AppWorld apps generate 40 per cent more revenue than Android Market apps, RIM says. Thirteen per

cent of BlackBerry developers have made $100,000 or more with BlackBerry apps, it says.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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