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New lease of life for BlackBerry PlayBook, with OS 2.0

With the release of updated software for its PlayBook tablet computer, Research In Motion Ltd. has made big strides toward silencing its critics. But at the same time, the free update that became available Tuesday reveals a few critical problems that continue to frustrate the Canadian corporation.

gadgets Updated: Feb 22, 2012 11:37 IST

With the release of updated software for its PlayBook tablet computer, Research In Motion Ltd. has made big strides toward silencing its critics.

But at the same time, the free update that became available Tuesday reveals a few critical problems that continue to frustrate the Canadian corporation.

The biggest improvement? The made-in-Ottawa PlayBook 2.0 operating system (OS), finally features one-click access to all of a user's email accounts. In the previous version of the software that arrived with the debut of the PlayBook in April 2011, users could access email only over the tablet's built-in web browser, a task many critics labelled as the device's ultimate Achilles heel.

Tuesday's update allows users to set up all email accounts, including web-based accounts such as Microsoft Corp.'s Hotmail and Google's Gmail as well as corporate email accounts, so they are all automatically synced to the PlayBook and appear in one window when the device's email application is opened.

The update also addresses consumers' seemingly insatiable appetite for applications, or apps, by giving the device the ability to run certain apps that were originally designed for Google's Android OS.

It also adds a calendar and contact cards that feature ``social network integration.'' Put simply, the cards appearing in the new Contacts app will automatically update themselves with data from all of the user's LinkedIn, Facebook and email contacts. The contacts are displayed in alphabetical order and users are free to edit the cards to add as much information as they choose. The calendar functions in similar fashion: approve a meeting request through an email at work and it will sync itself to your Playbook's calendar. Agree to attend a friend's birthday party on Facebook and that event will also pen itself in.

Further, RIM has added a social media ``dashboard,'' for lack of a better word, to its email program that allows users to stay on top of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and email (as well as other social media correspondence) right from the app. The application flags when new messages have been sent from various sources, such a friend on Facebook, allowing users to respond without having to actually log into the actual online service.

The device's ability to multi-task, its browser, its support for multiple video and audio files as well as its support for Adobe Systems Inc. Flash software, which allows companies to animate their websites and offer online video, are all still industry-leading.

Where the update begins to show its cracks is the lack of a program to access RIM's massively popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) app.

This function, which allows users to send secure text messages to one another, is still one of the driving forces behind the appeal of RIM's BlackBerry smartphones to business people and other consumers. The omission of the app isn't suspicious on its own, but digging a little deeper into PlayBook 2.0's new email program raises more questions.

The program, it turns out, doesn't offer support for RIM's much applauded and secure BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). Instead it only allows corporate email accounts to be set up using Microsoft's Exchange Active Sync. I asked RIM why BES wasn't being supported by PlayBook. The company responded by saying it has added safeguards to the ActiveSync Email protocol that use other RIM technologies and make it as secure as email flowing directly through BES.

However, in recent interviews with industry observers, it has been stated that the company's older BlackBerry operating system runs on the Java programming language and its newer PlayBook OS, made by Ottawa's QNX Software Systems, a RIM subsidiary, runs on the C programming language. The two don't readily speak to each other. If this is true, it means all of RIM's ``legacy'' products, including BES, must be recoded in order to talk with QNX's offering. The effort is a massive undertaking for the Waterloo company and Tuesday's release of PlayBook OS 2.0 would seem to confirm that it has yet to be completed.

Another aspect that could raise concerns from a business viewpoint is the addition of the celebrated Android apps. PlayBook 2.0 is the operating system that will be the basis of every new BlackBerry smartphone in the near future. While the ability to run Android apps may help to satiate some of the criticism the company has faced from diehard app-addicts, it also threatens the firm's aspirations for its products. Specifically, who would develop for BlackBerry when he or she can serve both RIM and Google customers by releasing one app on Android?

Those issues aside, Tuesday's OS upgrade adds some serious muscle behind what is already a pretty beefy device and proves that RIM is committed to making the PlayBook more competitive with Apple's iPad and a growing selection of other tablets. Whether the new features will completely appease critics or spark a run on stores is less certain.