BOSTON Research in Motion executives met with reporters and mobility experts in Boston this week to discuss what's in store for the Canadian telecommunication and mobile device company this year. They touted the upcoming PlayBook and outlined their reasoning for the PlayBook's feature set and also offered some insight on new enterprise app middleware and BES cloud computing services coming in 2011.
While there's a lot of new updates and software offerings coming from RIM, the biggest news for 2011 is the introduction of the new tablet PlayBook. RIM executives explained their reasoning for the tethering functionality of the PlayBook -- it requires a connection to a BlackBerry smartphone for messaging and so on -- and we also spoke to analysts to gain their insight on the feature.
The 7-inch PlayBook is expected to start shipping in the first quarter. It will run the BlackBerry Tablet operating system on a 1Ghz dual core processor and 1GB of RAM with two cameras and full HDMI video support.
RIM product manager Ryan Bidan said, PlayBook is "small enough to be portable, but big enough to be useful."
In terms of size, PlayBook is quite a bit smaller than the Apple's iPad. PlayBook measures in at 5.1 by 7.6 inches, and the iPad is 9.5 by 7.4 inches. But unlike the iPad, which offers a Wi-Fi with 3G model, PlayBook is only Wi-Fi enabled.
RIM defends PlayBook tethering to BlackBerry smartphones
To access BlackBerry messaging and corporate data via the PlayBook requires BlackBerry Bridge. BlackBerry Bridge is software that runs on the PlayBook and manages a tethered encrypted Bluetooth connection from the PlayBook to a BlackBerry smartphone. Once the connection is made, the BlackBerry tab on the Playbook is active and the user can access messages and corporate data, as they do on their BlackBerry.
When asked why RIM didn't provide access to 3G or 4G on the PlayBook, Bidan scoffed that it would be silly to imagine users holding a tablet up to their head to make phone calls.
PlayBook is an extension of the BlackBerry, RIM vice president Pete Devenyi said. As for the tethering requirement, he said, "There are many many advantages to doing it this way."
One of those advantages is that there's very little IT departments will have to do to support the PlayBook in terms of accessing the corporate network and data securely. Everything goes through BlackBerry smartphones, which are already managed by IT, and the only data the PlayBook stores locally is an encrypted cache. How long the PlayBook stores the cache is configurable by the IT department.
Analyst insight on PlayBook tethering feature, mobile app strategy
Yankee Group analyst Dmitriy Molchanov said that on one hand RIM's PlayBook could be attractive to existing BlackBerry customers because by tethering the tablet to the BlackBerry there's no need to purchase additional data plans or to setup another account with a carrier. But in terms of attracting new customers with the PlayBook, customers who don't already have a BlackBerry, "those features," he said, "go away."
Devenyi said that future versions of the PlayBook could be decoupled from the BlackBerry.
To build applications for the PlayBook, developers will have three options. They can build Web applications using Adobe Flash 10.1 or HTML5. They can use Adobe Air or BlackBerry Web Works. Or they can build applications using the Playbook's native SDK.
RIM's developer strategy is right now a weakness, Molchanov said. To build applications for the RIM product line, developers have to balance a lot of different form factors, and the PlayBook is yet another one to add to the list, as well as another operating system.
Molchanov said there are "a lot of weaknesses in their value offering now."
However, he said that RIM's tablet operating system is expected to be POSIX compliant, which could help alleviate the work developers have to do to make their applications run on multiple RIM devices and operating systems.
The PlayBook is expected to ship in the first quarter of 2011 and will be "competitively priced," according to RIM.
Bidan said there is "lots of stuff we're not showing."
But while the PlayBook will undoubtedly make a splash in the media when it's released, RIM's focus in 2011 is trained on keeping their foothold in the enterprise mobility market.
"We're on the verge of this giant wave of change and it's mobile," RIM vice president Alec Taylor said. "How do we take advantage of this seismic change?"
RIM is going to make a big push this year to get beyond merely selling BlackBerry smartphones and BlackBerry Enterprise Servers. While the next version of BES 5.0.3 is expected to ship in early 2011 with some impressive new features including better device data management and encrypted attachments, RIM has a lot more in store for enterprise users, IT departments and developers.
"We're in the middleware business now," Taylor said.
BlackBerry enterprise app middleware and cloud services coming in 2011
This year RIM plans to launch a new product called BlackBerry Enterprise Application Middleware. With BEAM application developers will have access to "very simple to use API calls," Devenyi said.
For example, a company could build an application to find out where all of their employees are located. With one API call, Denenyi explained, a developer can plot the geographic location of every person in a particular group on a map.
He also said that moving large files to a device could be much easier with BEAM. For instance, if in the middle of downloading a file, the user's BlackBerry loses its connection, the BEAM libraries will pick up where it left off before the connection dropped and ensure a complete and uncorrupted file is on the device.
All of the complexity to make that happen, Denenyi said, is in the libraries - "It just works."
Also on the menu for 2011 is the BlackBerry Enterprise Server architecture for the cloud. Denenyi said that RIM's cloud strategy isn't going to be entirely cloud-based, but rather a hybrid model.
As part of the cloud offering, RIM is expected to release the BlackBerry Common Messaging Interface. What BCMI will allow is BES services and databases to be accessible via the cloud. That allows a single BES to be used to support multiple corporations called "tenants."
So a company with only a few employees could become a tenant of a BES in the cloud, without the cost and hassle of setting up an entire BES for themselves. Denenyi said BCMI creates a "walled garden" for the tenant, giving the illusion that they're working on their own BES when really it's shared among several tenants.
Molchanov said that despite RIM's software offerings, "They are really hardware-centric." For instance, RIM gives away BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express, he said, to hook more customers into the BlackBerry smartphone product line.
The challenge RIM faces is how to balance the needs of the enterprise while satisfying consumer demand. Molchanov said that in terms of competition, there's not one threat, but rather it's the consumerization of the enterprise. A recent study, he said shows that 80 percent of companies have trialed a tablet, and that this year alone 50 million tablets are expected to sell globally.
"The role of IT is changing dramatically," Taylor said. And if IT can't solve a user's problem fast enough, they'll do it themselves.