PlayBook will need BlackBerry tethering, to start

Until a software upgrade later this year, users won't be able to get BlackBerry e-mail directly to the tablet

BlackBerry PlayBook users won't initially be able to get their BlackBerry e-mail directly on the tablet, but will have to tether a BlackBerry phone wirelessly to it, a Research In Motion executive said this week.

Users will be able to get mail on the PlayBook directly from a BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) only after a software update coming later this year, said Jeff McDowell, senior vice president of enterprise and platform marketing, at a panel discussion Wednesday at the CTIA Wireless trade show in Orlando.

Messages from any other e-mail system with a Web interface, including Microsoft's Outlook Web Access, will be able to go directly to the PlayBook as soon as it ships, McDowell said. Users will be able to log into a VPN (virtual private network) to access enterprise e-mail securely through Web clients.

A Wi-Fi-only version of the device is scheduled to go on sale at Best Buy and other retailers on April 19. A spokesman for Sprint, which has announced it will sell a 4G version of the PlayBook, declined on Thursday to give a ship date for that product.

RIM has developed an advanced tethering system for the PlayBook and BlackBerry that can be controlled via policies set by enterprise IT departments. For example, when the PlayBook is moved a certain distance away from the BlackBerry, tethering can be automatically terminated and no data from the phone will remain on the tablet. Multiple employees in a company could even share a PlayBook, each tethering their own BlackBerry to the tablet at different times, with no trace left of the other users, according to McDowell.

RIM has a lot riding on the PlayBook, which is up against stiff competition from the popular Apple iPad and dozens of tablets based on the Android OS. The upcoming device, announced last year, has had a mixed reception from industry analysts and from developers. RIM shares some concerns from the developer community about ease of app development for the tablet and is working to address them, McDowell said.

The PlayBook may not be garnering the same kind of excitement as some consumer-oriented tablets, but it's likely to suit some of the enterprises that have long relied on the BlackBerry, said analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates. Many enterprise IT departments are concerned about security and manageability of the iPad and Android tablets, he said.

If only 10 percent of RIM's installed base buys the PlayBook, that will still represent millions of devices, though nothing in the realm of the iPad.

"That's a great base to start from," Gold said. "I'm not writing them off yet."

Separately on Thursday, RIM reported fourth-quarter revenue of US$5.6 billion, up 36 percent from the $4.1 billion reported for the same quarter last year. However, the company's revenue guidance for the first quarter of its fiscal year, which ends in May, disappointed Wall Street investors, with RIM's share price down nearly 10 percent in after-hours trading. The company said it expects revenue between $5.2 billion and $5.6 billion, or $1.47 to $1.55 per share for the quarter.

Analysts had expected revenue of $5.67 billion for the current quarter and earnings of $1.65.

RIM cited costs associated with PlayBook for the guidance it offered, along with the possibility of supply-chain disruptions because of the recent earthquake in Japan.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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