Can PlayBook thaw government's icy tablet reception?

Because it's a BlackBerry at heart, the tablet could find favor with feds

Welcome to a new feature from the GCN Lab. Each month, we’ll search for a product that we believe deserves special attention from government tech managers and workers. It might be a device that has the potential to change the way you do business or a product that deserves a second look.

The product of the month for February is Research in Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook, which just might bring tablet computing into government. Although Apple’s iPad is a remarkable device, it might not be the best choice for government users, given its unreliable security — which is slowly improving with operating system upgrades — and inability to play nice with the Windows servers sitting in the back end of most federal and state agencies.

Granted, the latter might be as much a Microsoft problem as an Apple problem. Nonetheless, it means that although many government workers have bought iPads for personal use, overall adoption by government has been glacially slow, with no signs of thawing.

Related coverage:

Will the BlackBerry PlayBook score with feds?

The book on the PlayBook

iPad: 10 reasons feds should be eager

iPad 10 reasons feds should be wary

The greatest thing about the PlayBook could be that it’s a BlackBerry at heart. RIM will presumably use all the knowledge it has gained from making inroads with government to make the PlayBook as friendly to government workers as a plain brown suit. We got a chance to play with one recently at a trade show. It wasn’t enough time to conduct a full review, but we did note a few interesting and unexpected design choices.

For starters, the PlayBook has a 7-inch LCD screen. Contrast that with Apple’s philosophy that tablets require 10 full inches of space, and you have your first major difference. We aren’t sure how we feel about that one just yet, except to say that the PlayBook is a lot more portable than the iPad, which might be attractive to some users. It will squeeze into the inside pocket of most suit coats — or inside the pocket of a lab coat. It’s also very light, coming in at 0.9 pounds. The exact measurements are 5.1 inches by 7.6 inches by 0.4 inches. So although it might not be the best entertainment device, for business applications, the 7-inch screen should do just fine.

The screen is a 1024 x 600 WSVGA capacitive touch screen, so it looks great and can be used with your fingers without any special pointing devices. It even has an HDMI video output port so you could stream high-definition movies from the PlayBook to a TV or monitor. And the PlayBook doesn’t skimp on processing power, packing a 1 GHz dual-core processor with a full gigabyte of memory.

Flipping through pages of apps on the screen is fast. Unlike the standard BlackBerry interface, the PlayBook uses a QNX-based operating system, which, in a nutshell, is very much like an iPad or iPhone. Given the powerful back-end processor, it really flies on the PlayBook. And yes, the PlayBook does support all Flash applications and multitasking, other iPad Achilles' heels.

The biggest concern many government workers will probably have is the addition of two dual HD cameras. A 5-megapixel camera faces forward for recording video and a 3-megapixel camera looks back at users for videoconferencing. That means that as-is, some PlayBooks will need to be left at home because they will be forbidden inside many government facilities. Hopefully, RIM will be smart enough to release a government model sans cameras by the release date or shortly after that. The company certainly has enough experience working with government that not doing so would be an epic fail on its part.

And speaking of an exact release date, that remains a bit of an open question. The product was originally due out in March, but rumors have that date pushed back to May because of manufacturing problems. Whenever the products eventually hit the market, they will create a lot of buzz in government circles. We will follow up with a full product review. But for now, the PlayBook grabs our attention and earns our product of the month tag for February because it might thaw government’s distrust of tablet computers. Now if only it could do something with all this wintry weather.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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