Is the BlackBerry PlayBook A Game Changer?

First impressions of Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook indicate that the new tablet PC is definitely capable of taking market share away from Apple's iPad though it's positioned as a mobile computing device for the enterprise rather than for consumers.

Despite the relatively close match-up with the iPad in terms of specs, there are still some significant unknowns -- such as pricing -- and concerns, such as the lack of cellular network connectivity and scarcity of mobile apps.

The iPad's 9.7-inch display is larger than the PlayBook's 7-inch screen, which matches the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Tab. But while the Galaxy will be supported by all the major U.S. carriers, and the iPad 3G version runs on AT&T, the PlayBook will initially have no 3G connectivity. And, any vendor will have a hard time gaining parity with the iPad in terms of mobile apps.

There's still plenty to like about the PlayBook, however, and initial reaction is generally positive.

CNet's Donal Bell said, "we think it's fair to say the PlayBook isn't positioned to take on Apple as a budget alternative to the iPad. Instead, RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook is poised to attack the iPad on the basis of specs."

These specs are as follows: support for both HTML 5 and Flash 10.1, 1 GHz dual-core Cortex A9 processor, 1 GB RAM, a 7-inch screen, a front-facing 3-megapixel camera and 5-megapixel rear camera and 1024 x 600 LCD display. It weighs less than a pound. It also includes HD video playback, HDMI video output, Bluetooth 2.1, MicroHDMI and microUSB ports. PlayBook will also connect to BlackBerry Enterprise Servers.

On the downside, the PlayBook will not have a cellular radio, but will access the Internet via a Bluetooth connection with a BlackBerry smartphone, though 3G and 4G models are expected later in 2011. GPS is also lacking, as are mobile apps, at this point.

RIM (NASDAQ: RIMM) is building the device based on software built by QNX Software Systems, a real-time OS company RIM bought in April, that provides software for elements in everything from automobiles to tanks to fountains in front of luxury hotels. Using the tailor-made QNX OS, dubbed BlackBerry Tablet OS, is a departure from BlackBerry 6, the refreshed version of the BlackBerry OS, used in the BlackBerry Torch 9800 released in August.

"With all of these specs, the PlayBook has rocketed to the top of our list of the iPad's most legitimate contenders. Of course, there are a number of details RIM neglected to mention that may make the tablet a nonstarter," said Bell in his initial assessment of the PlayBook.

Dan Frommer, of the San Francisco Chronicle, echoed the concerns of other tech journalists by saying the PlayBook unknowns -- cost, battery life, distribution model and question of whether mobile developers will embrace the QNX platform -- are significant concerns as they all play a key role in whether or not the PlayBook will be a success.

Despite the beefier specs, the early 2011 launch date of the PlayBook means RIM misses this holiday season, and it remains to be seen how many consumers will wait for the New Year to make a purchase. Additionally, some industry watchers, including Frommer, believe there will be a more sophisticated model of the iPad to compete with by the time the PlayBook comes out.

Mobile IT, mobile management may wait for New Year

Still, if the PlayBook's core audience is the enterprise and pro-sumers, it may not matter much that it won't go on sale until after the fourth quarter.

The news of the tablet comes at a time when RIM is looking to increase sales as BlackBerry purchases begin to dip. RIM's smartphone market share fell to 18.2 percent in the second quarter from 19 percent the year before, while Apple's iPhone comprised 14.2 percent, up from 13 percent. Meanwhile, the Google-backed Android OS jumped to 17.2 percent from 1.8 percent, according to IDC's smartphone research.

RIM isn't the only mobile device maker rushing to cash in on the tablet market, as multiple vendors are rolling out Android-based devices in coming months. These include Samsung's Galaxy Tab, Dell Streak, the Cisco Cius and several models from Archos and ViewSonic.

In many ways, the discussion over whether RIM's PlayBook will be an "iPad killer" can be framed within the same context as the debate over whether RIM's Torch 9800 (or any other BlackBerry for that matter) is an iPhone-killer. On the one hand, though RIM is aggressively courting consumers, its core base is the enterprise, where it still dominates. By creating a mobile computing device designed for professional use, RIM avoids directly challenging the iPad and Apple's consumer segment, in much the same way that BlackBerrys are seen as better suited for the enterprise than iPhones.

On the other hand, the iPad is already making inroads in niche markets such as education and health care. With its vast inventory of mobile apps, the iPad could be the first choice for many verticals, making it difficult for competitors to catch up to Apple regardless of which segment they are targeting. Also, with the release of iOS 4, and now 4.1, the iPhone and iPad ecosystem is much more enterprise-friendly.

In the end, ranking as No. 1, No. 2 or even No. 3 in the tablet PC sector may not be the measure for success: many analysts believe that there's enough room in the market for multiple devices from multiple manufacturers to perform well.


mobile, Blackberry, iPad, tablet PC, RIM