A Half-Baked PlayBook is the tip of the Firmware Nightmare

Apr 19, 2011
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If there's one message that comes through loud and clear about the BlackBerry PlayBook - both in our review and in others - it's that RIM's first tablet is half-baked in its current state. The 7-inch slate is dependent on a phone for half of its key apps, glitchy in more places than it should be, and has left reviewers warning would-be early-adopters that it might even be too early for them to consider, well, adopting. Welcome to the firmware nightmare, where every device is a work-in-progress and nobody is ever quite satisfied.

The PlayBook is just the latest in a growing number of devices pushed to market before they're fully cooked, with manufacturers selling us on the promise of what their shiny hardware will do however many months down the line, after they've had a chance to similarly buff the software. Motorola's XOOM is another good example, with a non-functioning memory card slot and missing Flash support at launch, but we're increasingly seeing it in phones and other devices too.

Once upon a time, we'd buy a phone, live with it - and its stock feature-set - for the length of whatever agreement we'd signed up to, and then upgrade to The Next Big Thing. Now, there's an expectation that our devices will evolve in features, functionality and stability over time: become better tomorrow than the gadget it is today.

That accelerated software cycle has, however, given manufacturers a green card to release before things are entirely ready. Consumers are treated as beta testers, hooked in with hardware and the promise of what that hardware is capable of, with the firmware to actually make all that a reality delivered somewhere down the ownership line. As our own Vincent Nguyen said, buying RIM's latest is very similar to buying on credit: "Buy our PlayBook now, and we promise to deliver later."

On the flip side, meanwhile, there's a fresh sort of upgrade anxiety, a sense that the next great firmware for our phone, or our tablet, or some other gadget is just around the corner. It's the new obsession, and it leads to all manner of paranoia when that next update isn't quite as timely as we'd like it. Most carriers and manufacturers have told me horror stories of frenzied consumers baying frantically for the newest software release, whether that be Gingerbread on their phone or iOS on their tablet. The device you have today - the device you chose to buy in the first place - isn't good enough any more; it's a short, if obnoxious step to blaming OEM and network for purposefully undermining your user experience. I know of at least one PR person who, after a disgruntled and impatient smartphone owner managed to discover their direct number, called them repeatedly throughout the day accusing them of deliberately withholding their upgrade.

We're all complicit - users chasing the holy grail of functionality, manufacturers chasing sales - but I can't help but think that the pendulum has swung too far. When impatience, our own and that of vendors, shifts us from the occasional glitch to entirely absent apps, when we have hardware proudly mentioned on the spec sheet and yet that we can't actually use, that's not future-proofing but a false economy. Give me a device that serves its purpose 100-percent of its life, rather than something I'm expected to coddle until the potential catches up to the promise. In the meantime, I'm going to try to expect less from tomorrow and insist on more - even if that means more moderation - from today.


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