The two faces of the RIM PlayBook

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

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That Androidness could be good or bad for the PlayBook: good because there's clearly a lot of interest in such personal tablets, and RIM's BlackBerry brand could help the device stand out from the sea of me-too Android devices, but bad because there will be a slew of Android devices coming from companies with strong brands such as Motorola Mobility and Samsung. Also on the minus side, consumers have come to view the Android brand as the mobile equivalent of Windows, and just as users seek Windows PCs rather than PCs that happen to run Windows, most looking for a Windows-like tablet will seek Android tablets rather than tablets that run whatever tablet OS.

Of course, users aren't looking for a Windows-like tablet. The reality is that despite the Motorola Xoom (the only legitimate Android tablet currently shipping), nearly everyone buying a tablet is buying an iPad 2. The PlayBook is not in that league, so banking on being another Apple is a long-shot bet, especially for a conservative firm like RIM. Its competition is Android today and maybe WebOS this summer. Either way, it doesn't stand out, except negatively due to its BlackBerry requirement.

Do the two personalities complement each other?
Ultimately, for RIM's PlayBook's multiple-personality strategy to work, the two personalities have to complement each other. In the context of the BlackBerry/BES environment, the PlayBook has to make sense as a productivity tool, which means having appropriate apps and Web services available to be more than just a big screen for your BlackBerry. When the tablet is in the "just another tablet" context, it too has to make sense, providing a reasonable user experience in its own right for games, video, music, email, Web, and basic productivity needs.

If users see the PlayBook with its BlackBerry business face on and understand it has a "just another tablet" consumer face, they may decide they like the idea of a device that can adjust itself to its context, even if it requires having a BlackBerry. But that's a very subtle rationale that's hard to take seriously in the context of the iPad value proposition. I fear users will simply be confused why it works one way on the factory floor or job site and another way at home. Such confusion will lead them to make a safe choice (iPad, maybe Android) for their personal use and relegate the PlayBook to the few clear corporate-required (and thus corporate-issued) uses. BlackBerry diehards in IT will justify PlayBook investments, but outside of closed field-force deployments, I bet most will collect dust as users gravitate elsewhere.

My conversations with RIM execs lead me to believe that the real impetus behind the PlayBook strategy was to bolster the BlackBerry in business while having a product that would fly in the consumer market. But those same conversations gave me little sense that RIM has thought through what it takes to accomplish this goal in either market -- and the result seems to reflect that. It is an odd balancing act, after all: to be tightly controlled in one context and uncontrolled in another. I also noted a strain of head-in-the-sand, "when will they get over this dalliance with others?" sentiment clouding some of their judgments.

With the PlayBook slated to launch next week, we'll soon see if the PlayBook's two personalities work well together in a balanced yin-and-yang relationship -- or if RIM has created a Jekyll-and-Hyde creature. Negative reviews by the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg (generally a gentle critic), the New York Times' David Pogue, Forbes' Bob Egan, Engadget's Tim Stevens, and others given prerelease units unfortunately suggest the latter.

This article, "The two faces of the RIM PlayBook," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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