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RIM chiefs defend PlayBook as it comes to market

Company looking to loyal BlackBerry base for first wave of sales but critics say key features have been rushed


Published: 17 April, 2011

READ MORE: Research In Motion | Tablet

RIM's PlayBook tablet goes on sale in the US on Tuesday, and the company's co-CEOs are busily defending it against it critics. Jim Balsillie is putting the emphasis firmly on the loyalty of the BlackBerry user base - even though the tablet runs a different OS - while Mike Lazaridis is focusing on enterprise friendly features.

One of the problems for PlayBook, in the run-up to shipment, has been confusion in its positioning. When it was first unveiled RIM was sticking firmly to its enterprise credentials, but since then has been talking up consumer video markets. The device risks falling between many stools - a BlackBerry companion with a new operating system; a tablet with no built-in email from a firm famous chiefly for email; a product that has taken too long to come to market, but is still accused of being rushed and half-baked.

Actual sales will be the proof, but so far challengers to the iPad have made limited impact on a sector in which optimism is waning somewhat already and RIM needs to rekindle excitement around its product, and the category as a whole. Balsillie was lending his weight to this effort in an interview with Bloomberg News, in which he dismissed many criticisms of the PlayBook as "unfair". He reacted in particular to accusations that the tablet was an unfinished device, saying the base of 60m BlackBerry phone users could use the PlayBook to read email. "A lot of the people that want this want a secure and free extension of their BlackBerry." He added: "I like our chances for a lot of share. We're very excited about where we are."

The BlackBerry base will be vital, since for consumers, Apple and Android have far more applications and iPad has a strong brand and market share lead. The risk for RIM is that the new tablet OS, based on RIM's purchase of QNX, will not be sufficiently unified with the BlackBerry platform. This could replicate the problems faced by Palm when it left its enthusiastic Palm OS user base behind to adopt the more modern, but apps-light, webOS. RIM has confused matters further by compensating for the low base of QNX programs by supporting Android and Java runtimes.

Lazaridis believes the quality of RIM's technology, its enterprise and security features, and the "ultra-portability" of its 7-inch form factor, will win through. Indeed, RIM has a quirkier justification than most for the small-screen format - which has been roundly dismissed by Apple's Steve Job. Todd Wood, VP of industrial design, said in a recent Bloomberg interview that it was inspired by the size of the famous Moleskine leather notebooks, as used by Ernest Hemingway (and now available as covers for tablets and e-readers). However, the appeal of 7-inches to creative types has not set the world on fire for the first device in this size, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which sold 2m units in the last seven weeks of 2010.

The PlayBook starts at $499, the same price as the least expensive iPad 2, and goes up to $699, well below the top end iPad 2, at $829 (but that has 3G).

One of the many forecasts for the PlayBook comes from Alkesh Shah of Evercore Partners, who thinks RIM will sell about 250,000 units between next week and the end of May (the end of the vendor's fiscal quarter), and 5.4m for the full fiscal year. It will build up 10% of the tablet market by 2015, says another analyst firm, Gartner, which would be about 29m units.

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