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BlackBerry's Bridge to Nowhere

This week, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis halted an interview with the BBC after the interviewer grilled him on the security of the BlackBerry platform. He said the line of questioning was “not fair” before declaring the interview over. I don’t blame him for being a little bit testy, but it’s probably not only because he says that RIM is being singled out for its success. Lazaridis was probably irritated because he was in the midst of rushing the company’s first tablet out the door—a hugely important product he knows isn’t yet fully baked.

As you’ll see in my full review of the BlackBerry PlayBook, RIM’s 7-inch tablet does a lot of things right. It sports a sleek and solid design, a crisp display, loud speakers, and great cameras. And it has serious multitasking muscle, the kind that can let you stream a 1080p video or PowerPoint presentation to a big-screen TV while you’re surfing the web or looking at your notes on the tablet. RIM has also done a nice job with integrating Flash and with the gesture-rich interface—even if it looks a lot like HP’s webOS. My biggest problem with the PlayBook, other than initial software bugs, is the Bridge that leads to nowhere.

For those unfamiliar with BlackBerry Bridge, it’s an app that will run on BlackBerry phones to enable PlayBook users to access BlackBerry mail, calendar, BlackBerry Messenger, contacts, notes, and tasks. Without a BlackBerry phone by its side connected via Bluetooth, the PlayBook simply can’t deliver these key features. That’s exactly how not to broaden your audience, especially at a time when more U.S. shoppers are choosing Android phones over BlackBerrys.

Bridge has a couple of supposed benefits. First off, when your BlackBerry phone and PlayBook aren’t connected, all of that sensitive data goes away, which RIM says enhances security in the event that a device is lost or stolen. That assumes you’re more likely to lose the tablet than your phone, which I don’t necessarily think is true. A side benefit is that the Bridge feature includes a web browser that works over Bluetooth, so you can use your BlackBerry handset’s data plan to get online when you’re not in an area with Wi-Fi. 4G versions of the PlayBook will be rolling out this summer.

Even if Bridge worked flawlessly, it would still be a dealbreaker for many. But it isn’t seamless. Although we tested a preview build, all of the Bridge apps were slower to load than the ones that were built into the tablet, which makes sense because it’s streaming data from the handset. If your BlackBerry phone runs out of juice, you can forget about looking up that appointment or searching for that critical message.

Yes, the PlayBook includes shortcuts to web-based Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and other services, but I can get those on any other tablet. I want the BlackBerry stuff without a leash! Has anyone at RIM heard of the Palm Foleo?

Fortunately, RIM seems to have figured out at this late stage that Bridge is a bad idea, too. That’s why the company will be rolling out native e-mail, calendar, and contact apps for the PlayBook this summer as an over-the-air update. By then, BlackBerry’s App World will likely be stocked with higher-quality tablet apps, and you’ll be able to buy a version of the PlayBook that has built-in mobile broadband.

All of this brings me to my biggest question: Why release the PlayBook now with Bridge at all? Why not wait until the native apps are ready to go before launching this very high-profile competitor to the iPad 2? It’s not like the summer is that far away, or that Android 3.0 tablets such as the Xoom are setting the world on fire. HP is holding off until summer, and I know the PlayBook would have received a warmer reception if RIM had been a little more patient—even if it meant irking investors by missing the promised first-quarter window.

The BlackBerry Tablet OS proves that RIM can still innovate, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves both on the PlayBook and on upcoming phones. But the fact that someone thought BlackBerry Bridge would fly reveals that RIM still has a bridge to old-school thinking that needs to be blown up.