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Playtime at RIM

The reincarnation of the BlackBerry PlayBook is under way. A far more market-oriented 2.0 version of the ill-fated tablet will be released later this month. But can it restore faith in the brand? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to the device’s main evangelist.

Vivek Bhardwaj probably has the best and worst job at Research in Motion. As Head of Software Portfolio for Europe, Middle East and Africa, he is one of the first to try out the new operating systems and apps on BlackBerry phones and tablets. A year ago, that wouldn’t have been much fun, as the media ridiculed the company for releasing a tablet computer that could not even run e-mail by itself. Today, things are a little different.

So it is that, at BlackBerry DevCon Europe in Amsterdam this week, he is the only person walking around with a fully functional beta version of the PlayBook 2.0 tablet (See our review: Hands-on with the PlayBook 2.0).

Not that mere mortals are too envious: RIM had presented every one of 2 000 developers in attendance with the most current commercial version, a PlayBook running version 1.08 of BlackBerry’s tablet operating system, along with the software development kit (SDK) for developing apps for the new PlayBook. When 2.0 is released, the software on the tablets will be upgraded to the new version.

The tablet hand-out is part of RIM’s strategy to win over the developer community, which globally is focused most heavily on Android and iOS apps. It still has another 23 000 tablets to hand out at similar events around the world.

While the developers are checking out how well Angry Birds performs on the PlayBook 1.08, Bhardwaj’s main role is to demonstrate how far removed 2.0 is from 1.0. And he is under no illusions about where he has to start: the messaging, contact and calendar capability that was so lacking in the first version.

‚The first thing I want to show you is in the built-in communications apps,‚ he says, revealing a messaging panel that integrates e-mail, instant messaging, social network statuses, tweets and messages. He had demonstrated this functionality during the keynote address of his boss, new RIM CEO Thorsten Heins, to a sea of bobbing heads: a couple of thousand developers nodding in approval.

‚Parallel to that is Bridge 2.0, the remote control experience,‚ he says, referring to the big shift from Bridge as an app to view a BlackBerry smartphones’ e-mail on the tablet, to it being a remote control app for managing the device from the phone. Suddenly, instead of being a liability, it becomes a bonus.

‚Our original take of what the PlayBook should be was very different from what it is now. Taking the same paradigm from phone to tablet just didn’t work,‚ Bhardwaj acknowledges.

He also admits that it had taken far longer than expected to introduce the new version of the software.

‚It was coupled with a brand new user experience, but also the fact that a lot of the power behind those apps was from two of our acquisitions, and integrating that was perhaps a little more time consuming than we originally thought. We wanted to take the time to integrate all of that under the hood.

‚On top of that, we built out 2.0. When the original comments were made by our executives in response to market demands, they said ‚you’ll get your e-mail on the tablet’, because that was the issue.

‚But now 2.0 is a complete overhaul. It changes the experience. We’ve added apps like print-to-go, new file transfer capabilities, and enhanced every other app.‚

One of the most important of these enhancements, and probably the very heart of the device in terms of differentiating it from all others, is that the operating system is separated from the apps and data that have been installed on the device. The result: PlayBook users don’t have to back up and restore every time an update of the operating system is released.

The implication of this is simple but powerful: the PlayBook has leapfrogged all other tablet makers in ensuring the stability of the user experience across versions.

‚The single biggest issue on any platform is that customers hate backing up all data and having to restore it. Firstly, there is often a lot of data to restore. Secondly, you can’t use the device while you are doing the upgrade. Thirdly, you are never sure if you will get it all back,

‚Yet, it is an unnecessary step. One of great things we have done is that we have partitioned the device, and used the QNX micro-kernel to partition areas of the OS quite effectively. We have separate the radio function from the core OS. That will help is speed up carrier certification as well, which was part of the bottleneck we were trying to fix.

‚It is now the only platform where you can watch a movie and install the OS update at same time.‚

Fans of BlackBerry Messenger will be disappointed to find that it hasn’t arrived on the PlayBook yet. RIM’s reason? It’s not yet good enough to match up to the rest of the PlayBook experience. But it is on its way.

‚When we recently announced 2.0 was being released this month, we also announced that, until we get BBM to a point where it’s worthy of users, we will take it out. There is such high expectation for what we deliver, we couldn’t possibly launch it with the features we have today. So expect BBM later this year: our teams are working on it.‚

Bhardwaj will not be drawn on new features in BBM, insisting that the goal is making sure it is reliable and that it ‚just works‚ , as it does on smartphones, before unleashing it.

Enterprise security remains a cornerstone of the device.

‚From an enterprise point of view, mobile fusion and BlackBerry Device Service (BDS), will leverage our security and efficiency. In the enterprise space, you connect the PlayBook to the BDS, and it talks to Exchange, but we wrap our services around it.

‚We continue with the security we built into BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES). It provides a secure tunnel for connecting to the Enterprise, and connecting smartphones, tablets and services. There’s a huge opportunity for us to develop this entire ecosystem, but it needs to be based on standards.‚

Aside from the features of the devices, the single biggest demand from the marker is that the company displays a greater sense of urgency, and a faster upgrade of its platforms.

‚You will see progress and speed,‚ says Bhardwaj, mustering his considerable sense of diplomacy as he couches this urgency in the business-as-usual tones adopted by company executives, while they acknowledge that they have to operate in a new way.

‚One of RIM’s commitments is making sure what the scope is of what needs to be done and then to execute, and not try to innovate while in execution mode. That is part of the shift that RIM is making into this year. You will see us much more focused on execution. We will be innovating, but not to interrupt execution.‚

Why then no greater sense of urgency in producing PlayBook 2,0 and the new operating system that will operate across tablets and smartphone, namely BlackBerry 10 ‚ still vaguely scheduled for release sometime ‚later this year‚ .

Bhardwaj is unapologetic: ‚We wanted to make sure what we are designing is future proof, and not creating an environment that doesn’t allow us to improve and evolve. PlayBook 2.0 lays the foundation for BlackBerry 10. It’s the building block for BlackBerry10. It’s an evolution.

‚PlayBook 2.0 is a fantastic experience, a real big step forward. We are leading the field in Over The Air (OTA) software updates. Carriers have a part to play in those updates, but a lot of the mechanics we put into that means faster OS upgrades, faster fixes, and more stability. Playbook is now stable. This isn’t just s smartphone OS. It is more akin to a mobile computing platform. You can’t rush that.‚

Bhardwaj is wary of linking the success of BlackBerry smartphones in South Africa to the potential of the PlayBook.

‚Part of that success was naturally the BlackBerry Internet Service and the huge traction of things like BBM. When we look at the PlayBook in South Africa, we still need to build services at a local market level and determine the right channels. It is a combination of factors that makes a product a success.

‚For the PlayBook, it is still early days. Now that we have such a powerful way to update the software, 2.0 will create a brand new experience, and will be a positive spark in markets like South Africa, where we are already successful today.‚

* Arthur Goldstuck’s is editor-in-chief of Gadget and heads up World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.

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