BlackBerry PlayBook tablet poses big challenge for RIM

New OS seen as key to tablet's ultimate success with consumers

BOSTON -- With dozens of new tablets hitting the market in 2011, Research in Motion (RIM) faces an uphill climb with its upcoming 7-in. PlayBook tablet, which will run its BlackBerry Tablet OS.

RIM showed off the device to a gathering of 50 analysts and reporters here on Thursday. But the general consensus was that Apple's iPad will continue to dominate the market through 2011-- and a second-generation iPad expected this spring will keep it on top.

However, some analysts said the PlayBook, expected to arrive in the first quarter and running only over Wi-Fi at first, stands a good chance of closing in on the iPad. Sprint Nextel last week announced at CES that it will offer a WiMax version of the PlayBook this summer. Pricing has not been announced for either version, although RIM has said it will be competitive.

Most tablets on the market run $450 to $600.

"PlayBook won't be in the top two tablets in 2011, but definitely [in] the top five," said Will Stofega, an analyst at IDC who attended the RIM event. "RIM will be second to none on security features with PlayBook."

Stofega has talked to developers who are excited about the device, partly because many of those developers have built software for corporations on BlackBerry handheld devices and they know the value of RIM to enterprise and industrial users.

The big test for RIM, according to analysts, is making it exciting to consumers as well as to the company's traditional strong base of business users. RIM leads the smartphone market in the U.S. and is second in the world, but its percentage share of the market has slipped because of the growth of Android devices and the iPhone.

Some analysts believe RIM has had mixed success with smartphones for consumers, and has relied too much on its traditional base of business customers. As a result, there's concern about how well the PlayBook can compete in the consumer market.

When asked how RIM will market the device in TV ads and elsewhere and avoid being too much of a "tweener" device between business and consumer users, one RIM official acknowledged that bridging both markets won't be easy. "That's the marketing challenge, and that's as much as I can say," said Ryan Bidan, senior product manager for PlayBook at RIM.

Alec Taylor, vice president of software, services and enterprise at RIM, said the company will market the PlayBook by touting commonalities between business and consumer users. "Everybody wants superior performance," Taylor said. "It's a matter of connecting on an emotional basis and remembering the fundamentals. It's going to be an exciting launch."

Stofega said the user interface of the PlayBook and its overall design are exciting enough to generate consumer interest.

"A me-too device won't cut it, especially since a tablet is very different from a laptop and is probably the most intimate of the devices," Stofega said. The UI, called BlackBerry Tablet OS, is based on QNX Neutrino, a real-time operating system RIM acquired last year.

QNX has advantages for developers because it runs on multiple kernels and takes advantage of a dual-core processor, Stofega said. The processor for the PlayBook comes from Texas Instruments, and is called the OMAP 4430 1 GHz.

The device was designed with the assistance of TAT Design, which had input on Android on other devices, and should be attractive to consumers and business users alike, Stofega said.

"It's pretty impressive," Stofega said of the OS and overall design. "I've talked to game developers about it and they say, 'This is what we need.'"

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said that the key to the PlayBook's success will be the all-new OS. Users want a tablet that is "sleek, modern and fast," Gold said.

Even with such assets, analysts wonder how well RIM can expand into the consumer market, including those who buy the device then take it to work.

"It's important that the PlayBook not be seen as just a BlackBerry peripheral attractive only to current BlackBerry users," Gold said. "It needs to be attractive to a wide audience and should even be a draw to get new users to come to BlackBerry.... If RIM can do that, it will be very successful. Of course, they still are playing to their user base of BlackBerry, of which there are many, especially in enterprises. But expanding the user base will be a key measurement of success."

At the Thursday event, RIM officials emphasized the value of the PlayBook for multiple audiences: consumers, businesses and developers. Consumers will see "uncompromised" Web browsing on the device, with access to books, periodicals, movies, TV and music. Downloads of apps from RIM's App World will be supported, too, and regular software updates will keep the device current.

For businesses, the PlayBook can be securely paired via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry handheld that is connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server for access to calendar information and other data. Having that connection through software in the PlayBook -- it's called BlackBerry Bridge -- means the the PlayBook can use the cellular network associated with a BlackBerry handheld such as a Curve or Torch smartphone, Bidan said.

BlackBerry Bridge will use AES 256 encryption and have BlackBerry Enterprise Service policy controls. Users will be able to view documents and edit them, and enterprises will be able to add other functions.

For developers, Bidan said the PlayBook browser will support Adobe Flash 10.1, HTML5, Adobe AIR and BlackBerry Web Works. For the first time, RIM announced PlayBook will support BlackBerry Pushcast Software, version 5.7, which has an Application Programming Interface to allow a developer to take any media and adapt it for PlayBook, officials said.

BlackBerry Pushcast has been rebranded from Chalk Pushcast, which RIM acquired.

RIM has not said how much the PlayBook will weigh, though the target weight is 0.9 pounds. Overall it will be 5.1 in. by 7.6 in. by 0.4 in. thick. The 7-in. LCD multi-touch capacitive display is 1024 by 600 pixels.

It comes with 1GB of system memoryand three levels of storage: 16GB, 32GB or 64GB. Two cameras are included: a 3-megapixel forward-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear facing one. The 5300 mAh battery is expected to deliver eight hours of power and is not removable, Bidan said.

There are also three connection ports for microHDMI, microUSB andfor charging. In addiiton to Wi-Fi, the first version will also support Bluetooth.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)
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