A Closer Look at the BlackBerry PlayBook

By  Jeff Goldman — October 08, 2010

At BlackBerry DEVCON 2010, Research In Motion recently unveiled the new BlackBerry PlayBook tablet and BlackBerry Tablet OS. The new device is expected to be released in the United States in early 2011.

At a basic level, ABI Research analyst Kevin Burden says, it was important for RIM to establish a foothold in the tablet market. "Tablets are the new darling of the mobile device sector," he says. "They're viewed as the next frontier of mobile computing technology, and so being in the tablet space... shows that RIM isn't just holding onto its core values of small pocketable smartphone devices, but understands that the market is requiring more."

And the PlayBook, Burden says, could actually help to fulfill the original promise of the smartphone itself. "If you think back to the first half of this decade, we were all tired of lugging around our four- or five-pound laptop computers, and we looked at the smartphone as the device that was going to allow us to travel without our laptops," he says. "Years went by... and we realized that no matter how good smartphones get, we're always going to be traveling with our laptop unless we do have some sort of a bigger screen."

The fact that the PlayBook is designed to rely on a BlackBerry smartphone for connectivity and data security, Burden says, is a key strength. "IT departments don't have to look at the PlayBook and say, 'We have to put this on our asset tracking list,'" he says. "It's nothing more than a large-screen accessory to your BlackBerry."

And that can be a strength in the consumer market as well. "Once [consumers] understand that your BlackBerry essentially becomes the modem to this tablet, and you can get your 3G connectivity that way, with the contract that you continue to have... I think that's going to be a selling proposition that could resonate very well with consumers," Burden says.

There's another key benefit to keep in mind, Burden says, that's tied specifically to the PlayBook's QNX operating system. "Because it's POSIX-compliant... the applications that are going to be available for the PlayBook as well as all BlackBerrys could grow quite rapidly, and most likely they will be pulled from other platforms," Burden says. "You've got to assume they're going to be running Android applications right on top of this thing -- that the whole Android Market is going to be available to PlayBook users."

While RIM hasn't yet announced pricing for the device, Burden expects it to be extremely aggressive. "Say they hit it around $200," he says. "I think there's a lot of demand that could come from a $200 price point, particularly since the only other tablet on the market right now is the iPad at $500... If we hit a $200 price point on this device and you don't need a service contact, this becomes almost an impulse item."

And Burden says that's perfectly reasonable to expect. "Just look at some e-readers out there," he says. "We're talking about a device the size of an e-reader... you can get a 3G Nook for $200, you can get a Wi-Fi-only Nook for $150 -- and we're talking about a screen technology that's more expensive than we have with LCD screens."

Regardless of the pricing for the device itself, Chris Hazelton, research director at The 451 Group, says the solution will be extremely attractive to enterprise users. "It's a secure form of using and connecting to enterprise data, but it doesn't require any additional management... There isn't any additional cost to the enterprise in terms of another seat on the BES, yet the device is still secured through the BES, because that data is shared with the user's BlackBerry," he says.

That makes the tablet simple for any organization to deploy, regardless of its security requirements. "If they're using BlackBerry, they can from day one start using this tablet, because it conforms already to all of their security concerns," Hazelton says. "It basically lives on top of all their current security settings and policies."

And Hazelton says the PlayBook should be attractive to consumers as well. "You have a very capable WebKit browser that can support Flash, you have a lot of storage... and it has two cameras," he says. "So in terms of comparing it to the first generation iPad, it's a very, very good device. It's unfortunate that the tablet is coming out next year, but I think the capabilities are positioned so well that it will stand in good stead compared to second-generation tablets from current players like Apple."

Frost & Sullivan analyst Pete Finalle says that mix of strengths for both the consumer and enterprise markets is a particularly good move on RIM's part. "They've offered a lot of the desired features for the consumer market, which is generating a lot of buzz, but they still have that core BlackBerry focus on the enterprise market," he says. "That's a great way for them to enter this market, because you have Apple on the consumer side and tons of potential market participants announcing tablet devices, but on the enterprise side, really their only competition right now is Cisco."

And as the tablet market expands rapidly in the coming year, Finalle says, that foothold in the enterprise will be crucial. "There's going to be a pretty big flood of market participants, and BlackBerry doesn't want to just be another participant in that flood of competitors," he says. "They have to have something to differentiate themselves, and starting out in the enterprise market is a great move for them -- and similar to a lot of the BlackBerry smartphones, you're going to see them bleed over into the consumer market."

Finalle says one way the PlayBook could serve enterprise users particularly well is as an e-reader. "In the e-reader market, there was one competitor in the enterprise and that was IREX," he says. "They've recently declared bankruptcy and aren't allowed to compete in the US market... so I think BlackBerry can pick up some of that market of enterprise users wanting to cut down on the usage of paper."

Still, as Finalle notes, it's too early to anticipate exactly what the user experience will be like, both for the BlackBerry Tablet OS and for the BlackBerry PlayBook itself. "A lot it's riding on how it's actually going to perform, and how user-friendly it's going to be -- we haven't had a chance yet to look at it in person," he says. "But from the specs, it looks very promising."


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