Can the PlayBook serve two masters?

RIM's tablet, shipping Tuesday, is more business-focused, with more consumer apps coming in later versions.

The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which goes on sale Tuesday starting at $499, is performing a balancing act between two worlds.

One world is the consumer market, which already loves the Apple iPad tablet. The other is the enterprise market, which has used BlackBerry smartphones for years because of their vaunted security protections.

BlackBerry PlayBook

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet has a 7-in. display, is 9.7mm thick, supports WebKit, HTML5 and Flash for browsing, offers hardware-accelerated video, and will output 1080p video via HDMI.

Visual tour: RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook up-close

Some analysts believe Research In Motion is launching the Wi-Fi version of PlayBook on Tuesday partly because it was easier to manufacture, but also to appeal to its traditional enterprise base.

With the Wi-Fi version, there is no native email client included, and users will access business email only by tethering the PlayBook via Bluetooth wireless and the PlayBook Bridge software to a BlackBerry smartphone. That means that enterprise IT managers get the RIM security they know and trust because the smartphones are already linked to their BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (BES).

IT managers have noted that a major side benefit of that tethering scheme is that they will only have to pay for one wireless service contract.

Later this year, RIM will upgrade the PlayBook in ways that will appeal to consumers, analysts noted. RIM confirmed Thursday that it will provide free over-the-air software updates this summer to the PlayBook to add native email, calendar and contact clients. Also, it will ship WiMax, HSPA and LTE wireless versions that take longer to manufacture, analysts said.

While some reviewers have been critical of the PlayBook tablet already because it doesn't include a native email client, which would make it less appealing to consumers, others see RIM's rollout approach as making sense, given its business-focused history.

"With PlayBook, RIM is initially targeting an enterprise segment they've already had good success with," said Kevin Burden, an analyst at ABI Research. "If RIM came out with a consumer-focused tablet, head-to-head with Apple's iPad, what good is that? Motorola Xoom is a really good tablet and has gone nowhere [in sales] next to iPad, which shows you can't out-class Apple. If you try, you lose."

Burden added, "RIM knows that PlayBook will be much easier to sell to enterprise than to consumer." In fact, in an emailed invitation to members of the press and analysts for a New York City launch party for the PlayBook Thursday night, RIM showed that it needs both business and consumer buyers. The invitation reads: "Work smarter. Play harder. Introducing the world's first professional-grade tablet."

Some reviewers have also said that the PlayBook's 7-in. screen makes it too small for business users who need to easily run productivity applications, such as IBM's cloud-based productivity suite and Notes social business software.

But Burden said the 7-in. size, while much smaller than the 9.7-inch iPad and some others, could be just right for business users who want to easily slip the device into a jacket pocket. "That's good for mobile business," he said.

Other analysts, including those at Gartner, are less enthusiastic, pointing especially to the screen size as a problem for business users. "We believe 7 inches is not enough for a rich productivity experience and that the forced connection to a BlackBerry smartphone that you have initially through the secured Bluetooth link will be seen as limiting by users who might want to carry either a smartphone or tablet device but not necessarily both at all times," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi via email.

Gartner analysts have been harshest on the PlayBook, and recently issued a forecast for RIM's tablet sales showing that RIM will get 6.6% of the tablet market through 2012, hitting only 10% in 2015. In contrast, the iPad is expected to gain more than 60% of the market through 2012 and 47% in 2015.

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