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Why are electronics makers serving up half-baked gadgets?

Mark Milian
RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis defends the BlackBerry PlayBook, although the device is being launched without some basic features.
RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis defends the BlackBerry PlayBook, although the device is being launched without some basic features.
  • Gadget makers are releasing products that aren't fully baked, critics say
  • The BlackBerry PlayBook, Xoom and 3DS all promise to add core features later
  • The iPhone and Windows Phone 7 both debuted without copy-and-paste functions

(CNN) -- In their rush to get products into the marketplace, electronics makers are selling gadgets that may have been yanked out of the oven too soon.

With the long-awaited debut of the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet on Tuesday, Research in Motion becomes the latest gizmo chef to serve up a product that many critics say has not been fully baked.

The PlayBook lacks several important functions that most tablet computers offer, such as built-in cellular-internet services and applications for e-mail, calendar and contact management.

Initially, PlayBook users will need to connect their tablets to a BlackBerry phone in order to tap these features, which disappear once the device link is broken. No BlackBerry, no e-mail app.

"I got the strong impression RIM is scrambling to get the product to market, and that it will be adding other features already offered on competing devices for months, through software patches," the Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg wrote in a review.

"Unless you are constantly glued to a BlackBerry phone, or do all your email, contacts and calendar tasks via a browser, I recommend waiting on the PlayBook until more independently usable versions with the promised additions are available," he added.

RIM says it will add these core apps via a software update in the next couple of months. The company also says it will sell a PlayBook version this summer that has built-in 3G data, in addition to Wi-Fi.

Motorola Mobility took a different route with its Xoom tablet but still drew criticism. The Android 3.0 device was sold with only 3G at first, rather than as a Wi-Fi-only product. The latter version came out last month, after Apple's iPad 2 had stolen away some of its hype.

Motorola is counting on the Xoom taking advantage of Verizon Wireless's faster 4G LTE network. But the Xoom doesn't yet have that feature. Once it's available, Xoom owners will be able to send their hardware in for a free upgrade.

"We designed this product really as a true 4G product," Alain Mutricy, a Motorola senior vice president, said last month. "We really wanted to get there (first) with that 4G claim."

Support for Flash, the popular online-video format made by Adobe Systems that is a big selling point for Android tablets, didn't come to the Xoom until weeks after the product's debut. Even still, it's a beta version that lacks all of the features of its desktop counterpart.

"We went through this with Flash being delayed on the original Droid, and it created quite a stir," complained DansDroid, a prolific commenter on Motorola's forums, of the Xoom last month. "I don't know why they don't put more emphasis in expediting a product that they know well in advance will be in such high demand for flagship devices such as the Xoom."

The PlayBook can handle many Flash videos from the start. But it can't run BlackBerry or Android apps, even though RIM says it will eventually be able to.

Apple's mobile devices can't run Flash, but it's an ingredient the company consciously left out of the recipe.

But Apple, too, is not immune to selling half-baked concoctions.

The iPhone initially launched in 2007 without copy-and-paste, a basic computing function. That feature came two years later.

Microsoft made the same decision when it released Windows Phone 7 last year. Microsoft only began adding copy-and-paste to phones running the software last month.

Meanwhile, Nintendo launched its 3DS device last month without a Web browser, like it did with the Wii in 2006. The new hand-held game system displays a browser button in its main roster of software, but when it's clicked, a pop-up says: "The Internet browser will be enabled later through a system update."

After discovering these shortcomings, some customers have taken to blogs, Twitter and the manufacturers' own support forums to complain that their shiny new gadgets lack basic features.

"3DS internet browser taunting me behind its unworking icon," Derek Johnson, a self-described Canadian video-game lover, griped on Twitter about the Nintendo device.

Some feel slighted and have argued that as early adopters, they end up paying for the privilege to beta-test unfinished products.

So why the recent rash of underdeveloped gadgets?

Often, companies launching complex hardware-and-software packages are forced to make compromises in order to meet deadlines, said Harry Wang, a mobile analyst for market research firm Parks Associates.

Consumer acceptance of the software-upgrade process can make these fast-paced timelines viable, but "if a major function is missing, it will definitely hurt sales," he wrote in an e-mail.

"These efforts must be meticulously coordinated," Wang added. "Everyone wants to make it a perfect launch, but the reality is that today's convergence devices are so sophisticated and advanced, and even basic features need to be designed in sync with other functions."

Manufacturers defend their strategy by saying they want to get their products in the hands of those who want them immediately and will add more functionality at no charge later.

RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie, for one, talks enthusiastically about the potential of adding new abilities to the PlayBook using an upgrade system.

"What's exciting about the product is we have an over-the-air utility -- what it means is you can get lots of upgrades of new features," Balsillie recently told Bloomberg. "I think this product is an amazing platform. It's something we can run with for a long, long period of time."


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