PlayBook to allow tethering to BlackBerry smartphones

BlackBerry Bridge software allows Bluetooth tethering and can allow IT controls

BOSTON -- The BlackBerry PlayBook, initially being sold with Wi-Fi, will allow tethering to a BlackBerry smartphone, giving users of the tablet access to the smartphone's cellular network and all the calendar, messaging and Web-browsing features running on the smartphone, RIM officials said Thursday.

Also, if a user's BlackBerry smartphone and his PlayBook (via Bluetooth) are connected to a company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server, then the company's IT shop will be able to set controls on the way tethering works, RIM officials explained at an event here.

RIM's 7-in. tablet will ship in North America in the first quarter; pricing has not been announced. The PlayBook was demonstrated at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, but the tethering features have not been widely publicized, said Ryan Bidan, RIM's senior product manager for PlayBook.

Bidan said IT managers using BES would be able to control how long information is cached on a PlayBook, and that control would extend to sensitive contact information that a company wants to protect. When the PlayBook is out of range of a BlackBerry smartphone, the cache could be set to immediately deplete any data on the PlayBook or the IT shop could dictate that the data remain there for hours, days or even weeks, Bidan said.

The PlayBook includes software called BlackBerry Bridge that makes tethering with BlackBerry smartphones possible, Bidan explained. Bridge also allows pass-throughs of IT commands from BES. When reading e-mail from a smartphone over a PlayBook connected via Bluetooth and Bridge, "interacting is in real time with a BlackBerry [smartphone]," said Bidan, explaining that as an e-mail is read, an icon on the PlayBook will turn red.

But the Bridge also will connect PlayBook via Bluetooth to consumer-focused BlackBerry smartphones, such as the Torch or the Curve, allowing for full uses on the smartphone. If a smartphone user has Verizon Wireless or AT&T cellular connectivity, for example, the PlayBook will connect to Web-based e-mail, such as Gmail and other Web connections available to the smartphone. A BlackBerry Internet Service account, which is normally used by consumers for e-mail and other services, would not be required for that Web connection, Bidan said. Additionally, the same Web connections and services would be allowed via Wi-Fi connections where Wi-Fi is available.

Bridge provides 256-bit encryption and also allows for document viewing and editing. That means an e-mail received via a BlackBerry smartphone could be edited in the fuller interface on the PlayBook and sent back again, Bidan said.

For IT managers, Bridge gives the added advantage that only one device -- the smartphone -- needs to be managed instead of both the smartphone and the tablet, said Pete Devenyi, vice president of RIM's communications platform group. "There are many advantages to doing it this way," Devenyi said.

Bidan said that in addition to being able to view and edit e-mail, Bridge users would be able to view Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Other features are coming to Bridge, but they have not been announced, said Bidan. "We'll have remote desktop and business intelligence, but have nothing specific to announce today," he explained.

Biden demonstrated the PlayBook for an audience of 50 reporters and analysts, showing how touch gestures work on the interface. For example, a gesture pulling down from the top of the device will reveal a menu of applications, and a tap on the screen will make a video or other application pop instantly into full screen.

Bidan also said software updates to PlayBook will be received more often than updates are received today for BlackBerry smartphones, but he didn't elaborate.

RIM faces the challenge of making the PlayBook exciting to consumers, but since the company already has an established base of business users, Bidan said designers of PlayBook worked from the premise that business users and consumers want similar things from a tablet.

"The separation between the consumer and business [users] doesn't really apply [to PlayBook]," Bidan said. When developing the device, he said, RIM decided that it was important to "make sure... there was a PC-like browsing experience on a mobile device, [which] is a paradigm shift. That goes beyond core Web browsing."

Additionally, RIM designed PlayBook with the idea that users would "not be afraid to take the PlayBook with [them]" to meetings or anywhere else, Bidan said. "It had to be small enough to be portable, but powerful enough to be really, really useful."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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