The Engadget Interview: BlackBerry PlayBook product manager Michael Clewley

There's no getting around it: it's been a rough couple of years for Research in Motion. This week's on-time release of its PlayBook 2.0 software marked a rare bright spot in an otherwise grim era, bringing much needed features for the QNX platform such as a unified inbox, deeper social integration and updates to the company's BlackBerry Bridge app.

At the same time, the release of the 2.0 software has brought many of our outstanding questions to the fore: why weren't these features present in the first go-round? Why did the company take so long to flesh out its software? And lastly, when will we see some proper second-gen hardware? We sat down with PlayBook product manager Michael Clewley to discuss the slate's ups and downs, and how the revamped tablet stacks up in an increasingly crowded field.

Was the unified inbox something you were shooting for with the first version of the OS?

When we launched the PlayBook, we launched it with the BlackBerry Bridge as well to show that your two devices work really well together and you get that HD view into your smartphone. Obviously, that wasn't exactly what consumers wanted with the product, so from there we took the feedback and began working on it. We wanted to make sure that we take the product to the next level and not just deliver basic messaging, and that's what I think we've really done here. It's an overall integrated experience, not only with messaging, but with social. It goes across the device, so we wanted to make sure that that was an experience that would excite and delight users instead of just kind of meeting their expectations.

So the messaging wasn't there in the first version because you didn't think that's what people wanted out of the device?

Well, we wanted to make sure that the experience that we delivered for the PlayBook was something that BlackBerry users would find valuable. Again, the pairing of using your tablet with your phone to view email and keep that kind of view and synchronization in place is something we felt that would really excite BlackBerry users. But it seems that many users also just want an on-device built-in messaging application. That said, with 2.0, users are really excited about the new features in Bridge. Similar to how we've raised the bar with messaging, we've also raised expectations with the Bridge integration, with how these two devices work better together because of the remote control and because of the open-on features from your smartphone to your tablet.

So you initially envisioned the PlayBook as more of a supplemental device to your smartphone?

I think initially it was a great tablet for BlackBerry users to use as a companion to the smartphone, but what we've seen is that users who have the PlayBook love it just as much on its own.

Are you finding that there are people picking up the PlayBook that aren't already BlackBerry users?

For sure. I think that's why OS 2.0 is a big release for those users. It brings the built-in applications to those users and gets them that experience that comes goes with the BlackBerry. It brings native messaging, it brings the built-in contacts, the calendar to the PlayBook.

The price has gone down significantly since release, but based on the initial MSRP, would it have made sense to position the PlayBook as a standalone tablet?

Yeah, the PlayBook itself is a great device on its own, with lots of great applications. The browsing experience experience on the PlayBook is phenomenal, plus the content consumption experience is great. The thing that really resonated in the early PlayBook seven-inch form factor was the portability, plus the hardware that we have in the product. The dual-core 1GHz processor is still a valid hardware specification today, and it will be for a some time. It's powerful under the covers and it's what drew people to the product.

Does that mean that it's going to be a little while before you have a new tablet device coming down the pipes?

We never tend to comment on new hardware coming down the road.

Now seems like the time. The first PlayBook was announced at CES 2011 and came out shortly after.

Yeah, we had the big unveiling at CES 2011 and it launched in April of 2011, with our initial version of the software, which again, was a success for many users who appreciate the product and saw value in the product itself. So with OS 2.0, what we've done is essentially raised the bar with the value that it brings to the product, just giving it more holistic offerings.

Does the 2.0 update keep it more competitive with the current batch of tablets?

Yeah, not only do we have the built-in support for the applications I talked about, but it's a competitive platform for developers to bring applications to. We've seen a great influx of applications in the last several months, including apps that are built specifically for the PlayBook. We've seen titles like Angry Birds, Cut The Rope, Monopoly and Madden come to the BlackBerry PlayBook. With OS 2.0, we've also included support for Android applications, so Android developers can bring their apps and port their apps to PlayBook. It opens up, not only value for developers, but end users as they get more applications.

The last area is the web. The PlayBook browser in OS 2.0 is just phenomenal. We're seeing some really great scores in the HTML5 tests, and it's very competitive even in the desktop browser space. So it's another great platform for developers, and again, when you get developers on the platform, the users benefit from having those applications.

Is there a benefit, so far as you can see, for developers to develop an app on the native OS versus Android, if Android apps can be used on the device?

The way we look at it is that the Android runtime is a way for developers that are new to the platform to get their feet wet. It allows them to see how successful they can be actually be to have an app on the platform. I'm sure you've heard this stuff recently, but even back at DevCon Europe, we did some myth-busting and BlackBerry developers tend to make the most money out of any other platforms out there today. What we have in terms of a development platform, whether it's native using QNX or whether it's web, we'll give you the best overall experience on a device. I want to make sure that we have a really great Android experience as well. We're not 100 percent compatible for all Android applications, but we're pretty good and that is again going to bring over those long tail applications for those who have never even touched the platform before.

What are the specifics, as far Android app incompatibility?

Our website tends to list what we do and don't support. Right now it's native APIs on Android runtime itself that are the big contenders.

Why did the 2.0 update take so long to hit?

We've been talking about [the promised update] for a while. We talked about it in an interview back in the summer. We first announced 2.0 on an investor call back in September. We wanted to make sure that when we actually released the product, we brought the right experience that was going to really wow users, and I think that's what we've really delivered here. Something that RIM can be proud of in general and that our users are gonna really enjoy.

But you've been saying, "Don't worry, we haven't forgotten about you PlayBook owners."

Yeah, we wanted to make sure that PlayBook owners knew there was an OS update coming, and that we were listening to the feedback that we had gotten from them, and we're going to deliver on the experience to update what they're asking for.

As far as the ever-dropping price point -- was the device over-priced in the beginning, or have the drops come as a result of increased competition?

Yeah, I think that the tablet marketplace is still relatively new, but at the same time it's very, very competitive, so I think that the current price point and promotions that we're offering allow us to remain competitive in that market. In addition to that, with the feature set that we have now with OS 2.0, it really brings focus to the product and gives it a strong value proposition, so I think that this is an excellent opportunity for users to get a fantastic product.

The low-end PlayBook is roughly the same price as the Kindle Fire with current promotions. What does this product bring to the tablet that other tablets don't?

The big feature that we have right now is social everywhere. If you look back at BlackBerry, there's a lot of things that we do for users. The devices anticipate what your moves are. They give you the information before you know you need it, and I think that's what some of the things that we've delivered in OS 2. It's a really good device for someone who wants a really great tool, but also likes to have fun because we have a lot of really great applications.

I would assume that enterprise functionality would be a pretty big selling point, as well.

Definitely. With the launch of 2.0, we've also launched our next generation version of enterprise management. The next generation of BlackBerry Server, which is called BlackBerry Mobile Fusion allows you to not only manage your BlackBerry smartphones, but your tablet devices and enroll your tablets, push out applications, manage the tablets, make sure the data is being kept safe and secure, but also allow users to bring their own devices and continue to use them for fun while their using it for work as well. So this is an area where we're using the BlackBerry brand and trust and management and security to go further.

So basically, you see it as a consumer tablet first with added enterprise functionality.

With the introduction of Mobile Fusion, I would view it as a tablet that is for those who are working folks like the rest of us. They want to use the device not only for work purposes, but they want to use the device for fun as well. With BlackBerry Balance it allows the best of both worlds, so to speak. I can have work on my device but also have my games, it can have my Angry Birds, but I get my work email from my device and that data is kept safe and secure.

But you think the tablet is competitive for those who want a non-work device.

Hands down. The built-in functionality, the social integration and the apps -- we have 10,000 apps in App World specifically for PlayBook today, plus those apps built for Android. It's also a fantastic consumption device, whether it's media, video, music or reading, there's multitudes of ways to do this and the form factor again, portable, is great for on-the-go media consumption as well as reading. And that seven-inch form factor is beautiful for reading a book.

Has the recent change in management done anything to impact the company's focus on the PlayBook?

No. We said, back in the beginning of November that we were delivering in February, and we've delivered in February. So, again, we are focused on delivering great experiences to our customers and that's what we've done with OS 2.0. We are strongly committed to the PlayBook.