After promising in April 2011 that its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet would receive an update featuring native e-mail and support for Android applications in 60 days, yesterday Research in Motion finally delivered the updated OS, instead of yet another extension. In the interim, the company’s co-CEOs had to step down in the face of investor ire and promises of a whole new OS to power BlackBerry smartphones were also made and broken. While U.S customers walked away from RIM demanding that the once iconic brand should stay in tune with the times and deliver on new software and devices, all RIM actually did was change the name of its proposed OS from BBX to BlackBerry 10 after a legal snafu, and further delayed the launch of a new smartphone powered by the new OS, which remains promise ware.

And in between all of this, the company presided over a horrific 3-day outage that left its proud reputation for enterprise grade services in tatters, marquee corporate customers deserted the BlackBerry platform, and many are now willing to bet large sums of money that RIM already has one foot in the grave and it’s only a matter of time before the ship goes completely under.

The 1Ghz processor could be great for the mobile gamer as well

Early PlayBook OS had shortcomings

Ergo, the release of PlayBook OS 2.0 is definitely a silver lining in the turbulent, inky dark, thundercloud-laden skies that RIM has been nose-diving through. There are celebrations afoot on BlackBerry fan sites.

But the question is – can PlayBook OS 2.0 change anything for RIM?

First up, let’s deal with the much vaunted Android app compatibility. In RIM’s press release this came last, and confused me because I always thought of the PlayBook as a great tablet with an anaemic lack of applications. One would think RIM would highlight plugging of the biggest hole, but all RIM’s press release said was: “…thousands of new apps are being added to BlackBerry App World today (including a range of Android apps that will run on the BlackBerry PlayBook).” That’s it. And perhaps that’s why the RIM press release put it last, because RIM didn’t provide any details on these ‘thousands’ of new apps. BlackBerry App World doesn’t have a section on new apps ported from Android and when I searched for apps I really didn’t come across any really well known Android apps.

A slight overlapping of the previous menu listings

A slight overlapping of the previous menu listings

I don’t want to pour cold water over the party, because this is something that will be clearer over the following weeks. And I’ve run the developer versions of PlayBook OS 2.0 for months now and have ‘sideloaded’ quite a few Android apps. While performance was a serious issue then, that was the developer beta and not official release of the apps—they were essentially files converted unofficially from the Android APK format to the PlayBook’s native BAR format. But the first signs of the final release don’t seem very encouraging with RIM not releasing a list of apps, and with not much visible on App World. I truly hope Android apps ported to the PlayBook OS will be responsive and work almost as well as native apps, as RIM had promised in the past, because I honestly believe this could change things completely for the PlayBook.

And for those of you who expect Android Market to appear on PlayBook OS 2.0, no—that was never the plan.

Next up, there’s an integrated e-mail client with a unified inbox that consolidates messages from e-mail accounts, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. The interface is nice, but what put me off is that I couldn’t connect my work e-mail account, running on MS Exchange. I had to use BlackBerry Bridge for that, and even then it wouldn’t show in the unified inbox, but in the Bridge inbox. Sigh! I also found that the app took a while to load-not like the smooth experience of OS 1.0.

RIM has the tech chops to make it happen, since the BlackBerry smartphone platform is perhaps the easiest to configure e-mail on, including work mail from MS Exchange, Lotus Notes, etc. The fact that RIM hasn’t been able to do so, underscores the problems in bringing together RIM’s legacy platform and the new OS based on QNX.

What’s more impressive is the social Integration with the new Calendar and Contacts apps. The built-in calendar harnesses information from social networks. Contact cards are also dynamically populated with updated information from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to create a consolidated view of contacts. I liked the small touches that are obviously TAT-inspired–The Astonishing Tribe is a Swedish company that RIM acquired in 2010 and famous for their gorgeous user interface designs. For instance, on the calendar, the font for the date becomes bolder and larger on a day packed with items.

An all new calendar

An all new calendar

But all’s not well here, too. The Contacts application that is Gist-powered (a company specialised in providing contextualized, streamlined, and consolidated view of information that RIM acquired in early 2011) throws up some very valuable insights into your contact list, and is quick and responsive, unlike the Gist app for BlackBerry smartphones. However, it’s not perfect. I discovered it had messed up one LinkedIn contact by consolidating his information with another person on my contact list that had the same name. Worse, it had taken the second person’s work e-mail address and consolidated it with the previous person. Such glitches are shocking when RIM has taken almost a year to deliver what it once promised in 60 days.

On the OS UI front, there’s a new application dock where you can drag in your most used apps. The OS also features a new colour scheme. But one little niggle that I found glaring was when you drag up the application list. I noticed that a tiny part of the app name font peeking under the app dock. At Apple, this wouldn’t happen even in a Beta product, leave alone something in a final release that has taken so much time to bake.

The virtual keyboard is also all new with a number bar now above the main keyboard. With auto correction and predictive next word completion.

Horror of horrors, I detected an issue with multitasking, too. I was playing Need for Speed when a mail dropped into the Unified Inbox and Need for Speed paused for a brief second. That never happened earlier on OS 1.0.

Contacts feel like an Android set up

Contacts feel like an Android set up

There’s also an updated BlackBerry Bridge app for use with BlackBerry smartphones, which provides a nifty new remote control feature that allows a BlackBerry smartphone to be used as a wireless keyboard and mouse for a PlayBook. And besides this, there’s also a cool, new Print To Go app, which allows you to ‘print’ to your PlayBook from your computer. Plus, updated document editing functions and for CIOs-increased control over corporate data with BlackBerry Balance.

Bottom Line

On the whole the new PlayBook OS doesn’t seem very encouraging for RIM. I’ve always liked the PlayBook and have loved its size, its jaw-dropping multitasking capabilities, the brilliant, responsive and intuitive PlayBook OS and what is perhaps the best browser on a tablet (with full Flash support!), which delivers a full desktop browser experience. The PlayBook’s AV capabilities were always top notch—its crystal clear HD video has been positively looked at by more than a few of my co-fliers on airplanes when I use the PlayBook to catch up on TV shows. And its abilities on the video conferencing front can take on any other tablet with its two cameras. Plus, with the sharp drop in prices, the PlayBook seems very competitive for what it offers.

But will PlayBook OS 2.0 change RIM’s fortunes? I don’t think so. RIM has borne a huge loss to sell PlayBooks at the current discounted prices and PlayBook OS 2.0 would have been truly great news, if RIM had launched with this, or even actually delivered on its 60-day promise. Today, when the iPad 3 is around the corner, PlayBook OS 2.0 is a case of perhaps, not too little from an update, but very likely too late.

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