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PlayBook gets subdued retail launch

RIM focusing first on corporate sales, analyst says

April 20, 2011 03:35 PM ET

Computerworld - Nobody expects the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet to sell as well as the iPad 2. Still, Research In Motion seems to have taken an especially measured approach with its PlayBook launch, which started Tuesday in stores such as Best Buy and Radio Shack.

All along, analysts have predicted that RIM would mainly sell the first Wi-Fi-only version direct to business customers, RIM's traditional base.

"RIM, we're told, does have a lot of pre-orders for PlayBook in terms of business users," said Will Stofega, an analyst at IDC. "They have been pushed to put the PlayBook out there quicker, but they have to get past the opening days and snafus before they get to see [retail] results."

Eventually, wireless carriers such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless will sell the 7-in. tablet device, but spokesmen for all three of those carriers confirmed that they still have not named a date. Presumably, those carriers will wait for a WiMax, LTE or HSPA+ version of PlayBook to launch, which could happen sometime in the summer, analysts said.

Best Buy and RIM did not respond to queries about PlayBook sales volume. However, two sales representatives at a large Best Buy store in Framingham, Mass., outside Boston, said that they had only one unit in stock -- a 16GB model selling for $499.99 -- and it was being used as a demonstration unit. They said they expected to receive more units for in-store sales, but not for another week. However, Best Buy did have all three Wi-Fi versions of the device for sale on its Web site.

At a Radio Shack in the Natick Collection mall in Natick, Mass., a salesman said that the store had sold all three of the PlayBooks it had in stock on the first day, and he said additional units weren't expected to arrive for another week.

It isn't clear how RIM and retailers will replenish stocks of the device.

Other complications related to the launch have surfaced.

For example, AT&T confirmed that it isn't supporting the PlayBook Bridge software that enables the PlayBook to sync to a BlackBerry smartphone to receive corporate email and address book data. An AT&T spokesman said AT&T had "only just received the software and [we] are testing it to ensure it will provide a great experience for our customers."

The spokesman said RIM and AT&T are working together "to make the app available to AT&T customers." However some bloggers have suggested that AT&T could be delaying the rollout in an attempt to develop a way to charge for tethering the PlayBook device to a smartphone.

Stofega said the Bridge software and the lack of a native email client on the PlayBook generated a "lot of miscommunication" that RIM doesn't need during the launch of such an important device.

RIM plans to provide a native email client via an over-the-air update to the PlayBook this summer. Meanwhile, the fact that PlayBook users won't initially be able to have email pushed to them without tethering to a smartphone creates complications. "It's something new for people, and I don't know how people can do what they need to do and understand it," Stofega said.

"This is a very complex thing RIM's got going, and on the mass market side, people want something easy," he said.

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

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