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Playbook: The Second Coming

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Canada-based Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone, needs good news like we need oxygen. Once secure in the unique advantages of its products and snug in its cocoon of complacency, RIM woke up too late and rubbed its blurry eyes to note that big fat competition had all but gobbled up its share of the smartphone space. What's more, the iPad had meanwhile begun to redefine computing and mobility. Well, RIM decided to come back with an innovation of its own: the Playbook. At first glance, the eminently holdable, carryable Playbook with its multitasking, Flash, and gesture-based interface, looked like a fitting comeback. But oh, shock of shocks: the Playbook didn't have what was most signature to RIM - an email client, contacts, calendar, your data. Plus it was buggy, but that was small compared to the fact that these core functions were missing. You could only access them if you bridged with your BlackBerry phone. And oh, you had to do that anyway if you wanted connectivity on the go and were out of a wifi zone.Unbelievably, there were also no apps in its app-land, which I recollect someone as describing as a desert. Of course the Playbook didn't sell. Not until they slashed prices, causing the company a loss of — and two CEOs.

RIM said it could and would fix everything. New operating system, lots of apps, even if it had to get them from Android, all the email and calendar you wanted, and no bugs. The world waited and waited, though not necessarily with bated breath, because meanwhile a spate of tablets in all sizes began flooding the market — and the iPad 2 looked down from its throne at them all.

A rock-bottom stock, a riot, a stampede, a service outage and a new CEO later, Research In Motion has put its Playbook through the defibrillator and brought it back to life with all that it had promised. Finally. Now, when the iPad is about to go into its version 3 and Samsung, HTC and others have carpeted the place with tablets (with more being unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona even as we speak), the Playbook has been relaunched with earnest — and some new features.

What's New
The Playbook's operating system (just called OS 2.0 right now) has been upgraded to what RIM says is a hint at what the eventual BlackBerry 10 system will look like. Those who already own the Playbook can update free and will find that finally, the tablet has what it should have all along: email, calendar, and contacts. What this Messages area has additionally though, is social integration. Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin messages can be seen from within these core apps. You can't update your status etc from here though.  One nice feature is tabbed email with which you can reference one email while you compose another, or put an email you're in the middle of composing on hold, while you type out a quick response to another message. The Playbook's OS 2.0 keyboard includes predictive text, which helps you get things done faster — or get annoyed, as the case may be.

The calendar is more informative and relevant with information about what you need to do, reminders and even a one glance idea of how busy you are on going by the size of the dates. Like the inbox, which pulls together all messages, including from multiple accounts you might want to configure, the calendar pulls in information from personal and work appointments, along with social integration. There's also an interesting People View with which you can see your LinkedIn contacts.

I'm very happy that the Playbook can do email and calendars — in fact, you could get notifications in stereo from both Playbook and smartphone and figure out which you want to grab — but there's still something deeply ironic about email just arriving on a tablet when the world is seriously talking about whether it's time for email to die of old age. True that the Playbook has moved on from there and included more social integration than other tablets have — and that's nice for those who already own the Playbook -- but you can't sell a tablet on the basis of social integration. Contacts is also rich with information, including on meetings and quick access to video chat.

Blackberry Playbook

The second critical new thing is the Android player, which is meant to plug in the app gap.  This has been a long-promised addition to the Playbook, getting to the point where there was much scepticism about whether RIM would pull off Android apps on its tablets at all. At the moment, there is an infusion of Android apps, but not a significant amount. It is worth mentioning though that RIM has other interesting and powerful apps in the field of medicine, banking, loyalty and retail and other professional domains.

Reviewers benchmarking the Playbook's performance say it is now faster and smoother, though it still has some bugs. But the one feature that's really nice and that works well is the updated BlackBerry Bridge which lets users make a remote of their BlackBerry smartphones. With this in place you can control the Playbook, even inputting text to it through the phone's keyboard (which after all, has been one of the key reasons users love their BlackBerrys). Potential uses are controlling a presentation or output to TV via the Playbook.

What's Missing
So is the Playbook now on par with other tablets around? I'm going to take refuge in an American cliché by saying the jury is still out on that one. Is it too little too late? Is it enough? Well, you can't be blamed for scratching your head over why there is still no BBM on the updated Playbook. And why you can only video chat with another Playbook. And why Angry Birds only came to the BlackBerry AppWorld recently and it still has no Skype. The top 50 most-used Android apps are, in fact, still not available. Connectivity is via wifi and that is obviously not going to change through a software update, so if you're on the go, you tether with your smartphone or even a portable wi-fi device.

Who Is The Playbook For?
There's no question that owners of the original Playbook should update. It's free and adds immense functionality to your tablet. But what about anyone thinking of buying the Playbook now? The Playbook is, after all, not only a robust piece of hardware, but not as expensive as some at Rs 19,990 for the 64GB model.

If you already have a BlackBerry phone, you're in business, able to do most things that tablets do in both the work and wonderful time-wasting category. However, stop for a moment to think of whether you will want to carry two devices if your smartphone is one of the larger models. Speaking for myself, I am a big-phone-big-tablet person as long as the big phone doesn't exceed 4.5 inches. Each user will find a certain combination suits. Some people are, after all, only keen on carrying a small holdable phone with just enough to call and message. You could also factor in whether your BlackBerry is a company assigned phone or your own and what phone you think you might like to use in the near future.

If you don't own a BackBerry phone, explore other tablets, though not discounting this one if you really like the form factor and the responsive gesture-based way you will interact with the tablet. The Playbook, like the smartphone though, works within the closed BlackBerry ecosystem, so the two devices are best paired.

Mala Bhargava is a personal technology writer and media professional
Contact her at mala at pobox dot com and @malabhargava on Twitter