At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, I was able to sit down with Tyler Lessard to talk a little bit more about the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet from Research in Motion. I had first glimpsed the PlayBook at the Consumer Electronics Show in person earlier this year, but at GDC, RIM was showing off some games and talked a little bit more about what they are making available to developers as far as SDKs, toolkits, and APIs.
It looks like with the PlayBook, being the first tablet for RIM, the company is being a bit more strategic with the launch of the device than Google with the initial debut of the Motorola Xoom tablet. Unlike the Xoom, which had nearly zero third-party apps on launch day that were specifically designed for the tablet, RIM is courting developers to create tablet-specific apps so we should see a number of apps on or near launch day.
The strategy though for this device has to pay off for RIM. Unlike Google and Apple, which will allow smartphone-designed apps to upscale and run on the larger tablet display, RIM says that it will be managing separate stores under the App World moniker for smartphones and tablet apps. Essentially, that means that apps on the smartphone will not be able to run on the PlayBook, so RIM will require a whole new set of apps that will need to be designed from the ground up for the tablet. The risk here is that if the company isn’t able to build up its catalog of tablet-specific apps, it cannot fall back on nor rely on previously released BlackBerry smartphone apps to run on the PlayBook.
After my conversation with Mr. Lessard, I walked away perhaps a bit more confused about RIM’s promotion of the tablet and its strategy. While I am sure a company as big and focused as RIM is will probably have done all of the necessary market research and due diligence before going to market with a device like the PlayBook, the first-generation tablet will have some limitations that may affect consumer’s willingness to adopt the device.
First, the core set of personal information management (PIM) suite–such as calendar, contacts, emails–will not appear on the device unless a user has a BlackBerry smartphone, like a BlackBerry Torch, that will pair with the tablet via Bluetooth in a sync process called BlackBerry Bridge. After the BlackBerry Bridge connection is established, a user can then call up emails or contacts stored on the phone and view it on the larger PlayBook display.
Requiring a paired BlackBerry smartphone to access the most basic of PIM functions will severely limit the market reach of the PlayBook. Unless you’re using your tablet purely for consuming content like Web browsing and video viewing, or game playing, the PlayBook will not be able to serve the function of a personal computer by managing appointments, organizing your contact list, or providing email access, unless you’re willing to log into your account via a Web browser and have to enter your log-in credentials every time, making the process cumbersome at best. This means that the demographic that the PlayBook will most likely appeal to most would be BlackBerry smartphone users.
While banking on a mostly loyal BlackBerry smartphone user-base in the enterprise market will help RIM to create a tight ecosystem between selling its BlackBerry servers, providing smartphone capabilities, and now delivering a mobile computing platform via the PlayBook, this also means that RIM is putting all of its eggs in one basket. If BlackBerry phone users start to defect to other platforms–or are even considering it–a big question should be if the PlayBook will be able to deliver the same user experience after the platform switch? If you’re an iPhone or Windows Phone 7 customer, a PlayBook will not help you with PIM access whereas if you had bought a TouchPad, an iPad, or Android tablet, it doesn’t matter what platform your phone is using–you’ll always have access to your PIM data as well on the tablet.
These concerns aside, the hardware is great on the PlayBook and I definitely appreciate the portability of a 7-inch screen size. Unfortunately, however, these will be real and valid concerns in a highly competitive tablet environment where users can choose a tablet from any of RIM’s competitors that won’t have limitations with apps (you can’t install smartphone apps on the PlayBook) nor will you tied to the BlackBerry ecosystem (managing PIM information requires a BlackBerry smartphone paired and synced over BlackBerry Bridge).