The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which goes on sale Tuesday starting at $499, is performing a balancing act between two worlds.
One world is the consumer market, which already loves the AppleiPad tablet. The other world is the enterprise market which has used BlackBerry smartphones for years because of their vaunted security protections.
RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet has a 7-in. display, is 9.7mm thick, supports WebKit, HTML5 and Flash for browsing, offers hardware-accelerated video, and will output 1080p video via HDMI.
Some analysts believe Research in Motion is launching the Wi-Fi version of PlayBook on Tuesday partly because it was easier to manufacture, but also to appeal to its traditional enterprise base.
With the Wi-Fi version, there is no native email client included and users will access business email only by tethering the PlayBook via Bluetooth wireless and the PlayBook Bridge software to a BlackBerry smartphone. That means that enterprise IT managers get the RIM security they know and trust because the smartphones are already linked to their BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (BES).
A major side benefit of that tethering scheme is that IT managers only have to pay for one wireless service contract, IT managers have noted.
Later this year, RIM will upgrade the PlayBook in ways that will appeal to consumers, analysts noted. RIM confirmed Thursday it will provide free over-the-air software updates this summer to the PlayBook to add native email, calendar and contact clients. Also, it will ship WiMax, HSPA and LTE wireless versions that take longer to manufacture, analysts said.
While some reviewers have been critical of the PlayBook tablet already because it doesn't include a native email client, which would make it less appealing to consumers, others see RIM's rollout approach as making sense, given its business-focused history.
"With PlayBook, RIM is initially targeting an enterprise segment they've already had good success with," said Kevin Burden, an analyst at ABI Research. "If RIM came out with a consumer-focused tablet, head-to-head with Apple's iPad, what good is that? Motorola Xoom is a really good tablet and has gone nowhere [in sales] next to iPad, which shows you can't out-class Apple. If you try, you lose."
Burden added: "RIM knows that PlayBook will be much easier to sell to enterprise than to consumer." In fact, in an emailed invitation to press and analysts to a New York City launch party for the PlayBook on Thursday night, RIM showed that it needs both business and consumer buyers. The invitation reads: "Work smarter. Play Harder. Introducing the world's first professional-grade tablet."
Some reviewers have also said that the Playbook's 7-in. screen makes it too small for business users who need to easily run productivity applications, such as IBM 's cloud -based productivity suite and Notes social business software.
But Burden said the 7-in. size, while much smaller than the 9.7-inch iPad and some others, could be just right for business users who want to easily slip the device into a jacket pocket. "That's good for mobile business," he said.
Other analysts, including those at Gartner, are less enthusiastic, pointing especially to the screen size as a problem for business users. "We believe 7 inches is not enough for a rich productivity experience and that the forced connection to a BlackBerry smartphone that you have initially through the secured Bluetooth link will be seen as limiting by users who might want to carry either a smartphone or tablet device but not necessarily both at all times," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi via email.
Gartner analysts have been harshest on the PlayBook, and recently issued a forecast for RIM's tablet sales showing RIM will get 6.6% of the tablet market through 2012, hitting only 10% in 2015. By contrast, the iPad is expected to gain more than 60% of the market through 2012 and 47% in 2015.
Part of the reason for the PlayBook's low showing is that it will take time for RIM to attract developers to the new BlackBerry Tablet OS, based on QNX technology, Gartner said.
Gartner believes the support for RIM's PlayBook will be mainly businesses that already have the RIM BES infrastructure or that have stringent security requirements.
Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group, noted that RIM has said users will be able to run Android apps on the PlayBook, which isn't necessarily a selling point. "If you want Android apps, why not just use Android?" Kerravala said.
Early reviews have also said the PlayBook is short on apps, potentially another deterrent, especially for consumers. PC World's review noted the PlayBook's " limited app selection ." About 3,000 AppWorld store apps will be available at launch, but that is only a fraction of the 60,000 available for the iPad.
Perhaps the number of applications and other adjustments desired by consumers will come soon enough, Burden said. "The consumer is very important to RIM, even though it's not its traditional base," he said. "In no way could RIM have had good sales of BlackBerry smartphones without consumers, and consumers will be very important to the PlayBook's success as well."
Burden said some consumers will be stunned by the PlayBook's performance with its 1 GHz dual-core processor. While no one would want to watch two movies streamed to a tablet at once, the PlayBook can do so "without a hiccup," he said, while other tablets on the market can't.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, added that RIM understands the importance of serving both masters, business and consumer.
"PlayBook will eventually play to consumers, but my expectation is that early implementers will be business users who are leveraging the BlackBerry BES infrastructure," Gold said. "This first version of the PlayBook does not have all the bells and whistles that consumers want, with lots of content and apps, but the next version should have more. I think business users will be OK with the tethering to the BlackBerry smartphone, at least for now. And they can use some of the BlackBerry apps they already use, which is good."
Ted Schadler and Sarah Rotman, both analysts at Forrester Research, said RIM's marketing to both consumers and business users must be "flawless" and warned that if not, RIM will have "an expensive product failure on its hands."
RIM sees it needs more PlayBook apps to appeal to consumers, Schadler said, and to be successful, it must show how it will add more apps and other features in its second version./p>
"RIM has a powerful consumer brand and 20,000 retail outlets and they know they need to appeal to consumers," he said. "But if they sell PlayBook to the enterprise and don't have the consumer apps also, then business users will just have two tablets -- a PlayBook and an an iPad."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com .
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