The BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet’s One Glaring Flaw: Bridge

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We’ve seen an awful lot of RIM’s first tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook this week at CES. Now that they’re finally letting us actually touch the thing, most of the initial impressions have been positive, but one really big problem has come up: you can’t fetch e-mail or access other personal information management data (address book, BBM, memos, calendar, and tasks, for example) in their native apps without pairing it to a BlackBerry smartphone in a process they’re calling Bridge. Bridge doesn’t so much as sync data on both devices as it simply explodes information stored on the handset onto the bigger screen. As soon as they’re unpaired, the PIM data on the PlayBook disappears. This means if you have anything but a BlackBerry, the Wi-Fi PlayBook might not end up being an optimal standalone product, unless you hold browser-based apps and everything but PIM in high esteem.

The first hint of this eventuality goes back to the PlayBook’s announcement at DevCon and stretches through RIM’s ongoing marketing of the tablet as the first enterprise-ready tablet (that can apparently play Quake). However, RIM had said back then that the PlayBook wasn’t going to be managed by BES controls, which to me was the spitting definition of being enterprise-ready; wasn’t that RIM’s entire sales pitch? At that point it was obvious that the PlayBook might be enterprise-tolerable, but “ready”? Without granulated policy control (i.e. this guy can do this on his device, but that guy can only do that) at launch, “ready” might be going too far. It was also announced that the tablet would tether to a BlackBerry smartphone, but at the time it was assumed that this would be strictly for 3G connectivity, not also for stuff we took for granted like e-mail (though technically, the 3G tethering and Bridge will be two different things altogether).

This whole Bridge business is really tragic because everything else about the PlayBook is so great. It includes a responsive 7-inch 1024 x 600 display, a 5 megapixel camera on the back, 3 megapixel video camera on the front (both HD-capable), a dual-core Cortex A9 1 GHz processor, 1 GB of RAM, and purpose-built OS that can handle live, multiple 3D renderings without breaking a sweat. Best (or worse) of all, the thing is actually sexy, something BlackBerry hasn’t been able to boast since… Well, ever. Here’s our hands-on tour.

Now, end-users (especially ones without BlackBerry smartphones) will not be happy about the bridging requirement to get e-mail and other essential PIM data on the PlayBook in an app environment, and RIM must know that. Sure, there will be browser-based solutions in the interim, and no doubt the browser will be able to handle a fair bit, but it won’t compare to a native app. There must be even more important people (yes, more important than the people that would use the PlayBook day-to-day) that RIM needed to please to drive them to implement Bridge. The biggest one is corporate CIOs. Having a whole separate class of devices for them and their Enterprise Server admins to manage would be a pain, especially if it involved multiple instances of single identities (two PINs for one person). By setting the PlayBook up as something little more than a Bluetooth peripheral that stores no important data locally, security-conscious admins wouldn’t have to worry about PlayBooks sneaking off or getting lost, and them having no way of recovering or destroying the information contained therein. The fact that it’s a Wi-Fi-only device may also be a part of the issue; it would be hard for a BES admin to remotely wipe a PlayBook if there was no cellular connectivity whatsoever, especially if a clever thief left Wi-Fi off and never plugged it into an internet-connected computer. If Wi-Fi is the reason for Bridge, then maybe the WiMAX PlayBook coming to Sprint will herald a software upgrade that gives the tablet standalone secure e-mail capabilities on its own, hopefully along with some proper BES support. A recent video from RIM certainly indicates that smartphone-independent PIM apps would become available “as the platform evolves”.

One thing some of you guys might not know is that if you don’t have an active SIM card (or activated EV-DO account) in a BlackBerry phone, you can’t even use it on Wi-Fi alone – the device is that dependent on the carrier, and that’s one of the many reasons carriers love RIM. If some kind of carrier authentication is required to get onto RIM’s extensive NOC back-end (which compresses and pushes BlackBerry e-mail data, among other things), then RIM may have needed to Bridge to save face. After all, if the PlayBook launched with the only alternative, plain ol’ IMAP e-mail like any other smartphone or tablet, RIM would basically be admitting that their gigantic, bulky infrastructure wasn’t entirely necessary to make a good product. Although I doubt that alone pushed them to make the Wi-Fi PlayBook dependent on the smartphone for e-mail, it seems likely to be a contributing factor.

Ostensibly, a Wi-Fi only tablet could threaten RIM’s relationship with carriers by offering a rich wireless experience without giving the carriers a cent, but clearly RIM doesn’t want to burn any bridges (especially if they need retail partners to push the PlayBook). So in comes Bridge to the rescue, gutting core functionality unless you have a wireless data plan, specifically on a BlackBerry. This partially addresses why RIM didn’t just come out with a 3G version right out of the gate – the PlayBook is supposed to be a second device, and as such, it’s assumed you already have wireless data. Once those shoppers buy in and get one, then the only customers left are the ones who want a cellular-enabled PlayBook to replace some of their BlackBerry smartphone’s usual functions, like e-mail.

Although separate from Bridge, the BlackBerry tethering with the PlayBook is implemented very much in the same spirit. If the PlayBook’s tethering action goes through the exact same pipes as tethering to a laptop computer, then service providers will be able to detect, and appropriately bill for tethering data usage. Carriers won’t have to make up some new complicated secondary device sharing plan and all the hassle that comes along with splitting up accounts with multiple SIM cards; they just charge for more data, apply the added surcharge for tethering, or whatever it is they usually do for their standard smartphone-as-modem service. Even if the carriers are merciful and don’t force additional charges to share data from a BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook (who knows, maybe carriers won’t be able to tell which device is using it), the fact is you’ll still need to be paying some kind of wireless service provider to get core functions on a Wi-Fi-only device, which, if made by any other manufacturer, would stand on its own with no strings attached.

Another party that stands to gain from tying the PlayBook so tightly to the BlackBerry smartphone is RIM’s bank account, and by association, their shareholders. If people are buying BlackBerrys solely for BBM, then surely they’ll pick one up just so they have an excuse to buy a snazzy tablet, too. In this way, the PlayBook becomes a selling point for another product, rather than a product itself. The lapdock launching with the Motorola Atrix is very much in the same boat. The iPad and the various Android tablets that launched at CES are fine devices in their own right, but the overlap with smartphones is so considerable that there’s a risk of cannibalizing sales. By building in a dependency between the two product categories, RIM doesn’t only protect against that cannibalization, but capitalizes on the relationship. Instead of encouraging buyers to get either a smartphone or a tablet and making a few compromises one way or the other, RIM is trying to steer folks to buying both to have the full circle of functions. To boot, existing BlackBerry smartphone owners will already be warmed up to the idea of getting a PlayBook with the knowledge that the phone they have fills a vital gap in the tablet; that same dynamic will exclude anyone using another smartphone platform, but again, that’s a pressure RIM has already happily applied in their marketing with BlackBerry Messenger exclusivity.

Until RIM eventually includes a standalone e-mail client for the PlayBook, there’s always browser-based portals, and who knows, maybe Google will be nice enough to bring that lovely tablet-optimized Honeycomb Gmail client over to the BlackBerry tablet. If they don’t, there’s the hope that some other third parties will step in to provide an e-mail app which doesn’t need to Bridge and can work on Wi-Fi alone. Such a thing is not entirely unheard of in the BlackBerry universe; you might recall a product by the name of BBSmart, which enabled HTML e-mail rendering on RIM smartphones before they built it into the OS proper. In that particular instance, someone other than RIM was providing something that BlackBerry really should have had all along. Third-party alternatives are really no substitute for a RIM-built experience, but the big ol’ gap gives something for developers to fill, who stand to be the fourth winner of the PlayBook’s Bridge. By leaving the tablet bereft of core functions when unpaired, devs will be scrambling to provide solutions that keep people happy who just want to get their damned e-mail on their tablet without having to turn on Bluetooth on two separate devices first. On top of that, there will be plenty of people who want the PlayBook to work with smartphones other than BlackBerrys. Plus it’s not just e-mail, either – no contacts will be locally stored, neither will memopad notes, nor tasks. That’s all opportunity for third-party devs to step in and make lots of money – a reputation RIM needs to cultivate if they want to drag developers away from iPhone or Android. Just don’t expect anyone to make an unbridged version of BBM; we’ve all seen what happens when devs try to move in on that little crown jewel.

If Bridge leaves the PlayBook without native e-mail or contacts apps when unpaired with a BlackBerry smartphone (at least for the immediate future), then RIM’s first tablet will be a mostly defensive maneuver to keep existing BlackBerry owners locked-in and invested in the platform, and in a distinctly Apple-esque way, force anyone who wants to use the tablet to play 100% by their rules. Once that defensive line has been drawn, a more independent 4G PlayBook can go after those who have already picked their smartphone camp elsewhere. The Bridge syncing capabilities might be pushed as a convenience to end users, but in a lot of ways, it’s really in place to satisfy everybody but the person using the PlayBook itself. Although we can stand back and see from an academic perspective why RIM’s decision to use Bridge makes sense, the fact is it seems like the end-user was at the bottom of the food chain when it came to PlayBook 1.0, and for a lot of people that will be a huge turn off – I know it is for me, even though I use a BlackBerry and have nothing to lose from Bridge.

  • Guest

    There are going to be third party messaging apps, The 4G version of the playbook is BES ready, do some research before you write an article !

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      I openly admit both of those possibilities in the piece. If you’ve got some sources confirming either one, I’m all ears.

      • guest

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnBS9Wnv0kg
        Bridge is just an option for existing blackberry owners. Playbook will have it’s own native apps. What is your source for this fake article you just wrote?

        • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

          The exact same video. :) At 3:37, Doug asks about native standalone PIM apps, and Bidan says they’re coming “as the platform evolves”, which, again, I reference in the article.

        • http://www.blackberrycool.com/ Giancarlo

          Did you watch the video, “guest”?

        • http://www.facebook.com/BambiBlue Bambi Aletha Blue

          But you… you just… did you watch the video you just posted?

          Obvious troll is obvious.

  • Anonymous

    It’s still awesome :D

  • http://hubpages.com/hub/Electronic-Notepad Electronic Notepad

    Forget about the guest. I have learned a lot from this article and now see that the native usage of personal data apps for Playbook is a must.

  • ces

    the playbook is fricken sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeet!!!

    they got the wifi, they got the blackberry bridge, they got the 4 g carrier version coming, they attracting app developers, they gonna be making a 9 or 10 inch model.

    ipad can only switch apps, playbook = true multitasking…blows the ipad out of the water….ipad 2 included!

  • ces

    0h and i forgot to mention one more :)…

    they got native email, contacts, calendar, etc coming to the wifi only model soon!!!! (right after 3rd party dev build apps for that) hehehehe

  • AnonGuy

    My thoughts? Useless to anyone without a Blackberry.

    And since RIM’s smartphones are so disgustingly bad…

    Useless to me as well.

  • Empress

    I have a question, if anyone can help clarify since I’m not tech savvy but am interested in the Playbook and would like to understand it better…

    What is the functional difference between the wifi only and 3G as well 4G??

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      With a 3G/4G version, you’ll be able to get e-mail, browse the web, and otherwise consume data regardless of where you are (depending on how well your carrier covers an area). With Wi-Fi, you’re restricted to relatively close (20 meters or so) of a hotspot that you have access to (most are password protected).

      • Guest99

        but if you’re a bb smartphone owner, will you still be able access the web through the tethering when you’re not around a wifi hotspot?

        • Jeff

          From what I understand you can tether it but depending on carrier theirs a cost. Uscellular charges 25/month for tethering and is subject to 5g of data. If the bridge doesn’t allow you to web access then it doesn’t really matter if you have a blackberry. This makes me wonder if the playbook will be right for me.

  • Moe

    I think you are missing the whole point: Like all blackberrys the playbook it is all about security. The reason of not syncing e-mail between devices is important to the enterprise, having a device that if lost or stolen won’t be a security nightmare is paramount.

    About having native e-mail client, that is an app is becoming less important even on regular computers because EVERYBODY is moving to a cloud service like gmail or hotmail. Besides, how many copies of the same e-mail do you need in multiple devices?

    It is quite possible that the playbook will include a e-mail client if you need one, after all the name Blackberry is synonyms of mobile messaging. Assuming that any device will have or not certain feature without actually using the device is like judging the taste of a meal based on a picture: pointless.

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      I agree that security is one of RIM’s top priorities, and definitely the top priority of enterprises, but I’m not so sure it is for consumers. As much as RIM might be marketing this to companies, you can’t demo a device playing Quake and not expect consumer interest.

      I’m sure the PlayBook’s browser can handle webmail clients just fine, but that involves logging in to multiple services, and missing out on app-grade functions, like menus and notifications. Those are necessities if you want to have an efficient and enjoyable e-mail experience, not just a passable one. On desktops, we might all be going to the web, but on mobile, even the most simple functions are being packaged as apps because, like it or not, it’s a format people recognize and are comfortable with.

      As for needing e-mail in multiple places, that’s the very value proposition of BlackBerry, isn’t it? You get the same e-mail on your phone as you do on your desktop, and the read status and everything syncs up automatically. The fact that I’d have to sacrifice battery life on my handset from Bluetooth pairing to even get inflexible e-mail access just sours the experience.

      You’re right that a lot can change before launch, but from what RIM has shown us, there won’t be PlayBook e-mail without a Bridged handset, and that’s the only expectation we have to run with.

  • Anonymous

    I like how people are getting worked up over something that was announced back in September. Mr. Lazaridis said that it would need to be paired with a BlackBerry device to receive information from the BES. The WiFi PlayBook has no PIN so it cannot connect to the NOC. It’s designed that way so enterprise does not have to pay for another CAL license or worry about security.

    Do you, and all the others that are wailing about this previously stated feature, really think creating a native email and calendar application is that difficult? Users of the WiFi PlayBook won’t get access to the push features of the NOC. That’s all they’re really saying. For someone who covers RIM it shouldn’t be a shocker that a device that has no PIN cannot connect to the NOC.

    But since RIM is apparently the only company with a proprietary system, could you tell me where I can download the Apple App Store? I want to get some more games for my BlackBerry.

  • Anonymous

    I like how people are getting worked up over something that was announced back in September. Mr. Lazaridis said that it would need to be paired with a BlackBerry device to receive information from the BES. The WiFi PlayBook has no PIN so it cannot connect to the NOC. It’s designed that way so enterprise does not have to pay for another CAL license or worry about security.

    Do you, and all the others that are wailing about this previously stated feature, really think creating a native email and calendar application is that difficult? Users of the WiFi PlayBook won’t get access to the push features of the NOC. That’s all they’re really saying. For someone who covers RIM it shouldn’t be a shocker that a device that has no PIN cannot connect to the NOC.

    But since RIM is apparently the only company with a proprietary system, could you tell me where I can download the Apple App Store? I want to get some more games for my BlackBerry.

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      Nobody’s claiming RIM has been inconsistent, I just think people are noticing now after Bridge has been shown live at CES.

      It’s not that the PlayBook is utterly and completely handicapped, it’s that core functions won’t be simple and intuitive to use right out of the box; for your everyday consumers, it won’t be an optimal experience, even if you have a BlackBerry. For the many reasons you listed (especially the CAL license savings, hadn’t thought of that), it’ll make sense for companies.


      Simon Sage (via BlackBerry)
      Senior Editor at IntoMobile.com

  • Dagsmcd

    Just a terrfic article — well written whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusion. I generally agree, but would make the following additional point in support of Bridge: many firms, including my own, pay for the employees smartphone and unlimited data plan — but they will, quite understandably, only pay for one such device and plan. I have a choice between a Blackberry and iPhone (no support yet for Android for security reasons). I am leaning toward keep the Blackberry phone (of my choice) and separately purchase a Playbook — Bridge will give me access to my corporate email, contacts, etc without having to pay for a seperate data plan (as will be available on the forthcoming WiMax Playbook). Yes — that will drain battery via the bluetooth connection; yes — it is cumbersome and yes — blackberry phones are obviously inferior to the iPhone. But unless my firm decides to pay for two separate data plans, this is the only current for having my email etc. on both devices.

    Simon — does that make sense to you if you were in my shoes?

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      Oh, for sure, but that depends entirely on how altruistic the carriers are feeling. If 3G tethering on the PlayBook is deployed in a seamless way that service providers don’t charge you extra for, go for it, but I know that on Rogers, they’re setting a precedent with additional fees to share data with a secondary device, which I doubt you would be budgeted for.

      Simon Sage (via BlackBerry)
      Senior Editor at IntoMobile.com

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      Oh, for sure, but that depends entirely on how altruistic the carriers are feeling. If 3G tethering on the PlayBook is deployed in a seamless way that service providers don’t charge you extra for, go for it, but I know that on Rogers, they’re setting a precedent with additional fees to share data with a secondary device, which I doubt you would be budgeted for.

      Simon Sage (via BlackBerry)
      Senior Editor at IntoMobile.com

      • pmcguire

        Rogers charges customers $10/mo to add a second device to a data plan. The beauty of the Playbook is that you won’t have to pay that fee. You don’t require a second SIM card.

        I will have access to wi-fi 95% of the time that I spend using a tablet, and I will have my phone (BB 9700) with me 100% of the time, so the tethering design is perfect. Further, I would prefer not to have confidential company emails and attachments taking up memory on my tablet — they can stay on the server and on my phone. My personal email is in the cloud where it can be easily accessed from the tablet browser or app.

        The Playbook is the perfect solution for me and, I’m guessing, millions like me.

  • Joeshmoe

    I guess if you aren’t a blackberry user already that all seems negative. As a BB user, its all positive and makes total sense to me. They are catering to BB users and the people that manage them. My BB goes everywhere with me so I don’t see any downside. I get a convenient way to look at everything on my BB for business, and it satisfies the urge to go buy a tablet for web browsing and toying around. I cant get myself to buy a tablet because its just a redundant device with no real necessary or new functionality and they mostly require an additional data plan that I can’t justify for playing around. I’m not as into this stuff as probably most people here. I have a BB because I need it for work as do many people. So for people like me, the Playbook is a slam dunk and I think RIM knows that.

  • http://www.berrymaniacs.com Roninmaine

    I enjoyed your article. This is one of a very few well-written articles about RIM, BlackBerry, or the Playbook, that tell all sides of the story, or at least attempt to. While your point of view isn’t hidden between the lines, you aren’t militant in your delivery, and I appreciate that. I’m an Information Security specialist and Blackberry Enterprise admin. When I look at the Playbook for me and the staff I support (who already have BlackBerry devices), the Bridge makes sense for security. We just can’t afford to take security risks with intellectual property, or identities. To me, the BlackBerry could become like an EZ-Pass. It’s there, but I rarely notice it unless my account isn’t working. As long as my BlackBerry is near by, I can use my Playbook and rest assuredly, because the architecture enforces security. Just my 2 cents. I know that pesonal users have a whole different outlook on the situation. Maybe RIM needs to come up with 2 versions, personal & corporate, but that’s a lot of extra work and as you pointed out, would cut into profits. We’ll see how this plays out. Thanks for a great article.

  • Xyzspawn

    Great post. Bought the 16 gb version on day one in the U.S. Like the hardware a lot but the tethering aspect and software for non-BB phone users is not up to par. If I was a four letter word user I would use all of them to describe what is essentially a very poor beta release given the time it’s been in development. Per your article, unless you have a bb smartphone, it is almost a brick as far as communications purposes are concerned, over wifi. Sort of okay for web browsing and you tube, and fast for the included games. I have a $99 cheapo android tablet which blows away the playbook in terms of raw functionality, however, even though its processor can’t hold a candle to the playbook. PB at this point is worse than the 1.x versions of Android. Note to others: Google “where do gmail attachments go when saved blackberry playbook” to see a string of convoluted methods just to view, rename, and save attachments. Native documents to go handles business attachments just fine; gmailed photos from a smartphone are another story. You can view, and even save them, but try finding them? I have no idea where they are and have looked all over the device. Next step will re tether to my desktop and dig some more. Tethering and bluetooth defeat the purpose of a portable tablet. RIM please fix this, and don’t limit native email support to 3g/4g versions only. As a 4g wifi hotspot user, I don’t need another wireless plan on top of what I already have.

  • http://verizonfiosavailability.webnode.com/ Patrick Hudson

    Thanks for this very good article. If the Blackberry Tablet is so good apart from the Bridge problem then it is not so bad.

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