My TIME.com Technologizer column this week is a hands-on look at RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Like other reviewers, I was startled by the lack of full-blown e-mail, disappointed by Flash Player’s quirkiness, and bedeviled by bugs. All of which led me to what seems to be a near-universal conclusion among PlayBook reviewers: you probably don’t want to buy this thing yet.
Still, there’s much that remains appealing about the PlayBook. The hardware is nice and the WebOS-like interface is fun. With a serious software update or three–and more apps–today’s disappointing PlayBook could be the powerful, professional-grade tablet that RIM has been bragging about for months. It’s just that the company essentially released an unfinished product, presumably because it was so very anxious to get into the tablet market before other iPad alternatives had a chance to get an edge.
Motorola’s thinking with the Xoom seems to have been similar: It shipped a tablet with a 3G data connection and a promise of a free 4G upgrade and a MicroSD slot that didn’t work. And even though the Xoom, like the PlayBook, touts Flash as a core advantage, it didn’t have it at all at first, and is still on a beta version which wasn’t so hot when I tried it.
Software companies release unfinished products all the time, of course–it’s just that they label them as betas and don’t charge for them. Google is even doing something similar with its CR-48 Chrome notebook. RIM and Motorola, however, aren’t cheerfully acknowledging that their tablets are less than complete, and they’re not offering a price break.
I’m guessing that the trend will only continue. For one thing, companies are super-anxious to get in on the tablet business and other categories that feel like they’re part of the post-PC age. For another, it must be awfully tempting for them to think to themselves that they can can fix whatever’s wrong by pushing out post-sale software updates.
As long as the people who buy these products understand what they are and aren’t getting, it’s fine. And I’m not arguing that Motorola and RIM should be giving away the Xoom and the PlayBook. But what if companies that released beta hardware said something like “This isn’t quite ready for prime time, but we figured some of you would like it sooner rather than later” and offered some token of appreciation to the earliest adopters–say, a $100 app-store credit?
[UPDATE: John Gruber of Daring Fireball linked to this post with some comments which I appreciate, even though he's disagreeing with me. John complains about reviewers who grade tablets on a curve and therefore give a pass to tablets that aren't remotely as coherent, polished, and usable as the iPad. This particular post isn't my PlayBook review, which is why I didn't enumerate all of its problems --this one, over on TIME.com, is. In it, I say that the PlayBook "isn't in any shape to be seen in public," and that I wouldn't buy one. I also say that the iPad is the only tablet that doesn't feel like an experiment. And in another recent piece, I pointed out that there really isn't such a thing as a tablet market yet--there's an iPad market, and a bunch of disappointments.
John also quotes me saying that it's possible that a few software upgrades will turn the PlayBook into the professional product that RIM has been bragging about, and then says that the market will have passed the PlayBook by before that happens. He may well be right--I said that software upgrades "could" greatly improve the PlayBook, not that it's the likely outcome...or that even a much-improved PlayBook would be an iPad killer.
For what it's worth, my statement that software upgrades could meaningfully improve the PlayBook wasn't just a hedge; it was based on having used the tablet this week and--for all its major flaws--liking some things about it. I've used irredeemably rotten products; this isn't one of them. I'm not making odds on whether RIM will fix the PlayBook--and nothing it's said about the product indicates that it understands all of its flaws--but the opportunity exists.]