The two faces of the RIM PlayBook

The tablet requires a BlackBerry to get the corporate capabilities most users will expect

This article was updated April 14, 2011.

Is it flexibility or multiple-personality disorder? That's the question around the forthcoming PlayBook tablet from BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM). Announced last fall, formally introduced today, and due in stores April 19, the PlayBook is not a mere clone of an iPad, as most forthcoming Android tablets seem to be.

What's different about the PlayBook is that it is a different tablet when connected to a BlackBerry than when not. I'm downright skeptical that's a good idea; nor do I believe that the folks at RIM are privately convinced, either. But it's an approach that truly differentiates the PlayBook, for good or ill.

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The PlayBook's BlackBerry face
Where the PlayBook differs from every other tablet, real or announced, is that it must be tethered to a BlackBerry (via Bluetooth) to access secured services such as email and VPN access that a business would make available via BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). A PlayBook cannot connect to BES, or the services that BES provisions, without going through a BlackBerry smartphone. When the PlayBook is not connected to its BlackBerry companion, those BES-managed services -- such as corporate email and calendars -- don't even appear on the PlayBook's screen. And there are no email or calendar apps to access IMAP, POP, Exchange, and other non-BES email and calendars.

That's right: No email or calendar unless you have it tethered to a BlackBerry. Yikes!

When connected to a BES-managed BlackBerry, the PlayBook allows access to those services and acts essentially as a larger window into the BlackBerry. It's almost a thin-client approach, except that the BlackBerry app's display is reconfigured to take advantage of the PlayBook's larger screen, not merely scaled up or displayed in a window at BlackBerry size.

RIM says it chose this BlackBerry-required approach so that IT would not have to manage additional devices; all IT sees via BES is the BlackBerry. (The forthcoming BES 5.0.3 will let IT manage which BlackBerrys can be paired to which PlayBooks, so there is some management involved.) RIM also argues that users always have their BlackBerrys with them, so PlayBook users won't need to worry about getting BES connectivity. Ironically, the RIM exec who previewed the PlayBook to me had left his BlackBerry at home that day, so he couldn't actually use his PlayBook prototype to connect to BES and show me how it worked.

As I said, I'm hugely skeptical about the BlackBerry-required strategy. There are many situations in which users wouldn't have BlackBerrys but could benefit from having a tablet -- for example, in hospitals, training centers, factory floors, and the like. Many of these workers don't need a smartphone for business purposes, but they could benefit from a tablet. Additionally, some of these workers cannot be given smartphones; take, for instance, health care workers whose data access is restricted to when they are in the hospital facilities -- that is, only when they are in Wi-Fi range. To use the PlayBook, companies would be forced to issue smartphones to all these workers, so RIM's strategy is very likely to backfire.

RIM's plan also is meant to tempt companies to (re)standardize on BlackBerrys, given that BES can't manage other devices; it's a ham-fisted approach to try to reverse the BlackBerry exodus now occuring in business.

You can of course use a PlayBook when not connected via a BlackBerry. You can run non-BES-provisioned apps and connect to the Internet over Wi-Fi -- just like with any tablet or computer -- for Web access (inlcuding Webmail). You can also run PlayBook apps not provisioned via BES; you can install personal apps and business apps directly on the PlayBook. You can also run Java and Android apps recompiled for the PlayBook and approved by RIM in a sort of virtual machine.

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