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Research In Motion releases vital PlayBook software upgrade

A customer holds a Research In Motion's PlayBook tablet computer.

Larry Downing / Reuters/Larry Downing / Reuters

The long-awaited software update for Research In Motion Ltd.'s PlayBook tablet computer was made available for users to download on Tuesday morning, bringing new functionality to a device long criticized for lacking key features.

Launched last April, the PlayBook was RIM's foray into the burgeoning tablet space, but the PlayBook failed to sell against Apple Inc.'s high-end iPad and a host of other, cheaper tablets such as the Kindle Fire. The PlayBook lacked a native e-mail application out of the box, and despite the company saying an update was coming "very, very soon" in mid-April, 2011, a decision was made over the summer to push the software updates into one major revamp, which was then delayed in October until February.

The PlayBook OS 2.0 update, which is free to download for RIM's tablet users over a wireless connection, brings a native e-mail application, a better calendar app, and a much deeper contact list that pulls in LinkedIn information and a live feed of news affecting a contact's company.

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At first glance, the new operating system upgrade is sleek. The new integrated e-mail inbox pulls in social media feeds – such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter – in a format that is much smoother than the PlayBook's older e-mail application. The e-mail client also now has predictive typing, which is a big improvement over the previous version.

An update for the BlackBerry Bridge application – which runs on BlackBerrys and allows the PlayBook to access the Internet securely via a shared connection – was released late on Monday, prompting RIM employees to start joking on Twitter by using the hashtag " #Twosday," a reference to the 2.0 upgrade. The BlackBerry Bridge app allows users to use their BlackBerrys as remote controls for their PlayBooks and type onto the larger, touchscreen device using their BlackBerry's keyboards.

Twitter lit up with approving messages about how great the new software was, with some saying they were going to buy additional devices for spouses.

Some industry analysts think the crucial update, which addresses many of the things critics panned about the device, comes too late. The brand suffered immeasurably when RIM released the device prematurely, lacking some of the features that are only coming nearly a year after launch.

Indeed, until RIM began deep discounting of the device that many suspect has the company selling its inventory of PlayBooks at a loss, the device languished way behind rivals such as the iPad in terms of market share. One recent report by Toronto-based Solutions Research Group, however, pegs RIM's share of the tablet market at around 15 per cent, a big jump after discounting over the holiday buying season.

First impressions:

Even though the new PlayBook software has the ability to use apps from Google Inc.'s Android operating system, it appears that not too many developers have ported over their apps into the BlackBerry App World, despite coaxing from RIM with free PlayBooks for any developers willing to do so. As of Tuesday mid-morning, the new arrivals section of the PlayBook's App World featured a smattering of random apps, such as a "Learn Alphabet - Cyrillic" app, a "Physics Sketchpad" and a "WordPress for PlayBook" app that will allow users of the popular blogging platform to update posts via their tablets. There appeared to be no coordinated attempt to refresh the BlackBerry App World in tandem with the PlayBook's software update.

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For users trying to integrate their Gmail accounts, it may take some time: Roughly an hour after being installed on a reporter's tablet, it was not yet registering messages. In addition, users who want to integrate their work e-mail and contacts on a PlayBook that was not directly issued by their company may have to get approval from their IT departments, as well as technical details.

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