I spent a couple hours this weekend trying out the BlackBerry PlayBook and Android 3.0, Honeycomb-powered Motorola Xoom tablets. I'd tried the PlayBook and seen the Xoom before at CES 2011, but both were unfinished at the time and I was interested in seeing what the shipping versions were like. Unfortunately, the shipping versions were still unfinished, or more properly, unbaked. They reminded me of cookie dough.
Cookie dough has all the right ingredients, so much so that people can and do enjoy it in its raw, unbaked state. They nibble at it, lick it off mixers, and eat ice cream filled with chunks of it. And why not? It's delicious... In nibbles and licks and chunks. But no matter how good it is in small doses, you inevitably wish someone would just bake it already.
That's how I ended up feeling about the PlayBook and Xoom. The BlackBerry tablet actually shipped without native email, calendar, or contacts support, with a browser that goes from smooth as silk to struggling, to crashing even with 1GB of RAM under the hood, and with a power button that challenged and annoyed many seasoned reviewers. The Motorola tablet had to wait on, or is still waiting on, software updates to enable USB and MicroSD, and a round-trip back to Motorola to have the LTE radio swapped in.
A trip to App World on the PlayBook yielded startling few apps in many categories despite the device supporting very nearly every development platform this side of Logo. The Xoom likely had far, far less. I couldn't verify that, however, as it hadn't been logged into a Google account so I couldn't access the Android Market, or email client, or many other apps, which in and of itself is a blisteringly bad user experience. (Show us the store, just don't let us buy anything. Show us the apps, just leave them empty. You know, like Apple does.)
The PlayBook for it's part provided a fairly consistent, often buttery-smooth OS experience. Inspired by webOS no doubt, but realized as something unto itself. But it's not a BlackBerry OS experience and someone coming from a Bold 9700 won't have the same instant connection to a PlayBook that an iPhone user would have to their new iPad. (In fact, given the experience of the PlayBook, every BlackBerry user should be required to take back 50% of the nasty comments they've made in the last year about iPad being a "toy").
The Honeycomb experience, while often spectacular, was far more disjointed, with different parts working in different ways. That the trademark lack of consistency has persisted to Android 3.0 makes me think webOS designer-come-Android UI savior Matias Duarte either wasn't given enough time to work on the UI or isn't being allowed the impact he should, both of which are troubling thoughts. It's far more of a desktop-style interface than iPad, and could allow for a lot more power, but it's caught at the moment between that desktop UI and tablet conventions, between where Android on smartphones was and where it wants to be. It's unfinished to the point that Google has taken the unprecedented step of breaking from their "openy" model and not releasing the Honeycomb source.
The PlayBook and Xoom have so much potential, so many great ingredients, but no fit and finish -- they were just put out on the shelves without seeing any time in the oven.
Say what you want about Apple -- and we all say plenty -- but most of the time they nail the fit and finish. They don't provide all the features everyone wants, they try to control the experience to a sometimes untenable degree, but what functionality they include and systems they design are mostly elegant, easy to use, and fully baked. The email, calendar, and contacts worked even if you didn't own an iPhone. The dock port and 3.5mm headphone jack were functional out of the box, and it didn't need to be sent back to Apple to have the radio swapped out. (Insert antennagate joke here.) They even chose the embarrassment of 10 month white iphone 4 delay rather than releasing a product they deemed unacceptable.
You get the feeling that Apple executives -- that Steve Jobs -- uses and loves these devices and if there's anything he considers a problem, he's down in the kitchen fixing it. Apple ships products that are finished because they've already had to satisfy one of the harshest critics imaginable -- their own CEO.
Maybe RIM and Google/Motorola felt compelled to release their tablets before they were ready. Maybe they value impatient investors more than the people who buy their products. That's too bad. You can't just bolt on polish like you can an LTE radio, or integrate customer experience like you can a secure email client. These values have to be part of the corporate culture and development cycle from day one. (Apple likewise faces similar struggles to add functionality like fast app switching, something webOS got right from day one.)
There are a lot more tablets coming, from RIM, Motorola, and many, many -- many -- others. But as I've said before, the competitors can't just bring specs (or content) to an experience fight, and especially not when they're unbaked.