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RIM's much anticipated entry into the increasingly crowded tablet market was made official yesterday during the keynote at DevCon 2010, RIM's developer conference. The PlayBook aka "BlackPad" presents an interesting value proposition to core BlackBerry users - i.e. enterprise and government organizations - and delivers it in a package with some very compelling specifications. However, many questions and potential issues remain before the device is actually launched in Q1 2011. Let's explore a couple.
The Device: The announced specs on this device speak for themselves. While I won't recast all of them I will touch on a couple of the more compelling. The 1Ghz dual-core processor (NVIDIA Tegra?) certainly packs a punch and should do well supporting some of the more processor intensive applications supported in the enterprise. While the decision NOT to offer a 3G/4G version at this juncture (more on that later) is interesting, the embedded WiFi radio will be very attractive for a variety of voice over WiFi and unified communications applications. At 7" RIM is making a statement - and perhaps taking on a bit of risk. Clearly other 7" devices have recently been introduced - most notably from Samsung - however, the tablet category (as it is currently defined) is centered around the 9.7" iPad. However, in the enterprise sector, VDC's research has indicated an opportunity/sweet spot at 7" - large and differentiated enough from smartphones and capable of supporting graphics-rich applications such as GIS while small enough to support a high degree of portability/mobility. A big question mark - given these robust features (Adobe Flash) - will clearly be battery life. 'Full shift' should be considered cost of entry. The lack of 3G/4G radio should help, however, it remains to be seen if that is attainable.
The OS/platform: As widely speculated, the PlayBook OS will not be the recently released BlackBerry OS 6.0 but rather an OS (called BlackBerry Tablet OS) based on the recently acquired QNX (see comments about QNX from VDC's Embedded Practice here). The flexible application platform with support for WebKit/HTML-5, Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Adobe Mobile AIR, Adobe Reader, POSIX, OpenGL,
Java. For enterprise applications these will all be critical requirements. Lost amid the PlayBook fanfare was RIM's WebWorks announcements. With WebWorks, developers can build Web applications for BlackBerry leveraging HTML5, CSS, and JavaScipt. This could be a hugely critical differentiator for RIM, however, also potentially encroaches on some of the available cross-platform develop/compiler solutions.
Connectivity: The lack of embedded 3G/4G options with the initial release (to be included in future versions) will not garner any favors with the carriers, however, will likely make the device more attractive from a management and security support perspective. The device OS can connect the the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) software and will enable users to link - via Bluetooth - to users' BlackBerry smartphones. In this state the smartphone's content is viewable on the tablet, however, the content remains stored on the smartphone. According to RIM, this should address many enterprise IT department security concerns. However, this is not a smartphone companion device - nor should it be positioned primarily as one - and can also support standalone operation.
The Timing: Initially expected in Q4 2010, the device will actually be first introduced in Q1 2011. There is two ways to look at this. In today's world of smartphones and tablets applications and the application eco-system are ultimately what distinguishes the 'haves' from the 'have nots'. To date, BlackBerry's application eco-system has left something to be desired. While BlackBerry's target market is not the broad consumer market and its litany of fart apps, VDC's recent mobile developer research has evidenced the broadening gap between Android and Apple's iOS and other mobile platforms. The PlayBook is a significant enough device - and the development platform and tools compelling enough - to shift much of the enterprise - and also broader mass market - development efforts back in BlackBerry's direction. In other words this provides sufficient enough time to seed the application market - RIM is working closely with partners IBM, SAP and Oracle on these efforts - so the device can hit the ground running once launched. On the flip side, the timing of the official ship date will likely coincide with the second generation iPad which could be a challenge to navigate. Moreover, does RIM really want to give its competitors over three months advance notice about its features and capabilities (and/or are they compelling enough for target users to wait several months before purchasing their tablet)?
The Target Market: With the iPad and other 'consumer' devices continuing to encroach RIM's core enterprise and government customer base, the PlayBook is designed to defend its turf. In other words road warriors, field workers, campus workers, etc. The browsing interface (along with Flash support) will also satisfy the mobile worker's appetite for a consumer-friendly experience (long absent from BlackBerry devices). Right now the target market is RIM's approximately 60M users. This is a good place to start. However, one issue that RIM has yet to effectively address - and is becoming an increasing issue - is that RIM does best in homogeneous environments. Outside of highly controlled/regulated industries this is increasingly NOT the norm. RIM needs to find a counter.
With the PlayBook RIM has definitely hit the mark in terms of key features and capabilities. Clearly until the device is released and applications and user experiences can be evaluated much is left open to interpretation. However - and this perhaps cannot be said of other recent BlackBerry product announcements - with the PlayBook, and the accompanying services and development tools, RIM is committed to driving innovation and setting new standards when it comes to the enterprise and government mobility user experience.