PlayBook to allow tethering to BlackBerry smartphones

BlackBerry Bridge software allows Bluetooth tethering and can allow IT controls

BOSTON -- The BlackBerry PlayBook, initially being sold with Wi-Fi, will allow tethering to a BlackBerry smartphone, giving users access to the smartphone's cellular network and all the calendar, messaging and Web-browsing features running on the smartphone, RIM officials said Thursday.

Also, if the user's BlackBerry smartphone (and PlayBook through Bluetooth) are connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server run by a particular business, then the company's IT shop will be able to set controls on the way tethering works, RIM officials explained at an event here.

The 7-in. tablet will ship in North America in the first quarter, and pricing has not been announced. While the PlayBook was demonstrated at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, the tethering features have not been widely publicized, said Ryan Bidan, senior product manager for PlayBook at RIM.

Bidan said IT managers using BES would be able to control how long information is cached on a PlayBook, including sensitive contact information that a company wants to protect. When the PlayBook is out of range of the BlackBerry smartphone, the cache could be set to immediately deplete any data on the PlayBook. By contrast, IT could dictate that the data can remain for hours, days or even weeks, Bidan said.

The PlayBook includes software called BlackBerry Bridge that makes tethering with the BlackBerry smartphone possible, Bidan explained. Bridge also allows pass-throughs of IT commands from BES. For reading e-mail from the smartphone over the PlayBook connected via Bluetooth and Bridge, "interacting is real-time with BlackBerry [smartphone], and as an e-mail is read, the icon will turn to red" on the PlayBook, Bidan said.

But the Bridge also will connect PlayBook via Bluetooth to a consumer-focused BlackBerry smartphone, such as the Torch or the Curve, allowing for full uses on the smartphone. If a smartphone user has Verizon Wireless or AT&T cellular connectivity, for example, the PlayBook will connect to Web-based e-mail, such as Gmail and other Web connections available to the smartphone. A BlackBerry Internet Service account, which is normally used by consumers for e-mail and other services, would not be required for that Web connection, Bidan said. Additionally, the same Web connections and services would be allowed via a Wi-Fi connection where Wi-Fi is available.

Bridge provides 256-bit encryption and also allows for document viewing and editing. That means an e-mail received via a BlackBerry smartphone could be edited in the fuller interface on the PlayBook and sent back again, Bidan said.

For IT managers, Bridge gives the added advantage that only one device -- the smartphone -- needs to be managed instead of both the smartphone and PlayBook, said Pete Devenyi, vice president of RIM's communications platform group. "There are many advantages to doing it this way," Devenyi said.

Bidan said in addition to document viewing and editing with Bridge, users would be able to view Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Other functions are coming to Bridge, but have not been announced, Bidan said. "We'll have remote desktop and business intelligence, but have nothing specific to announce today," he added.

Biden demonstrated the PlayBook for an audience of 50 reporters and analysts, showing how touch gestures work on the interface, with left and right swipes. A gesture pulling down from the top of the device will reveal a menu of applications, and a tap on the screen will make a video or other application pop instantly into full screen, for example.

Bidan also said software updates to PlayBook will be received more often than updates are received today to BlackBerry smartphones, but he didn't elaborate.

While RIM faces the challenge of making the PlayBook exciting to consumers, since RIM already has a well-established business user base, Bidan said designers of PlayBook worked from the premise that business users and consumers want similar things from a tablet.

"The separation between the consumer and business personnel doesn't really apply [to PlayBook]," Bidan said. When building the device, he said it was important to "make sure... there was a PC-like browsing experience on a mobile device, [which] is a paradigm shift. That goes beyond core Web browsing."

Additionally, RIM designed PlayBook with the intention that users would "not be afraid to take the PlayBook with you" to a meeting or elsewhere, Bidan said. "It had to be small enough to be portable, but powerful enough to be really, really useful."

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