Can PlayBook tablet serve both consumers and workers?

The question on the minds of industry analysts is whether RIM can pull off the consumer/business balancing act for the 7-inch PlayBook and give both audiences what they want

The coming PlayBook tablet from Research in Motion straddles the line between consumer-centric and business-centric device, symbolic of the dilemma RIM faces serving both markets.

The question on the minds of industry analysts is whether RIM can pull off the consumer/business balancing act for the 7-inch PlayBook and give both audiences what they want.

PlayBook contains both the rich multimedia features normally sought by consumers (such as two high definition cameras, HDMI video output and a 1024 x 600 resolution screen) and the ability to connect to locked-down BlackBerry Enterprise Servers used in business settings to secure and manage BlackBerry smartphones.

"RIM's legacy is predominantly enterprise but what's selling in devices these days is far and away consumer-centric," said Van Baker, a Gartner analyst, in an interview. "So one of the challenges RIM faces [with PlayBook] is how to manage both sides of that coin."

RIM picked the name PlayBook as an apparent sports reference to appeal to the masses. Yet at the same time Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis introduced it on Monday as "enterprise-ready," partly for its ability to function readily with the 250,000 BES servers now used by IT shops globally to manage and secure BlackBerry smartphones.

The PlayBook descriptions and product features aren't exactly contradictory, but point to how difficult it will be for RIM to position the device when it goes on sale in early 2011, analysts explained.

Following the unveiling of the PlayBook yesterday, analysts said thay aren't completely sure how fully enterprise-capable the device will be.

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook up-close

Some wondered, for example, whether the PlayBook will be able to create and edit documents independently without having to be paired via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry smartphone. (RIM's press release raised this concern for some because it said the PlayBook caches content from a Bluetooth-connected smartphone temporarily as if the PlayBook were only a larger viewer than the smaller smartphone display.)

Some also wondered whether a 7-inch screen with a virtual keyboard would be large enough for workers to easily use.

Baker said RIM is keenly aware of concerns that some RIM BlackBerry users don't like their devices as much as iPhones or Android users like theirs. He said that is at least partly because many workers are required by their IT shops to use a BlackBerry.

A recent survey by Crowd Science supported the notion that BlackBerry's brand is hurt by company mandates to use the devices, Baker noted. In addition, some IT shops have policies restricting some functions of a BlackBerry smartphone for security or other reasons. The ability to restrict functions, such as the ability to play videos or streaming radio stations, is a key motivation for IT shops to select BES in the first place, Baker added.

Baker said he discussed the Crowd Science survey with a RIM executive during the PlayBook announcement and the executive expressed frustration that RIM has seen up to 500 different IT policies for setting controls on BlackBerry usage. Baker said the executive told him that "IT guys can lock down a BlackBerry so tight that a user can't watch videos" or do other things that end up limiting the user experience.

If IT managers implement similar controls on PlayBook users, then the multimedia features will be diminished, Baker said. And what makes the PlayBook attractive, at least arguably, in comparison to the 9.7 inch iPad from Apple are the multimedia features.

Baker suggested that RIM might have to move to a model Apple uses, and let BES control only corporate data on the PlayBook, while leaving a user's personal data and functions alone.

"RIM is positioning PlayBook as a tablet for the [corporate worker] but I'm not so sure that's smart positioning," Baker added. "They have to change their messaging if they want consumers. Consumers don't care about IT control and remote wipe; they want a sexy device. RIM has to focus more on the consumer-like pitch, while not abandoning IT."

Meanwhile, Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, wondered if PlayBook can really fully serve business users as a standalone device. At 7 inches, it will almost certainly need a physical keyboard for document creation linked by Bluetooth as the iPad provides, he noted. And he wondered just how easily PlayBook will link to the BES on its own without a smartphone connection.

"There are a number of questions RIM didn't answer and they probably don't even know the answers yet," he said. Noting RIM's disclosure that a BlackBerry smartphone would be needed to link to the BES, he added, "You've almost got to be a current BlackBerry user to like this PlayBook." Baker said PlayBook's success will hinge on whether it can appeal to consumers while also maintaining also filling the needs of IT shops and business users.

Gold adde that RIM appears to be linking the future growth potential for PlayBook and other devices to the new QNX Software-based OS inside the new tablet that enables connections to Adobe Flash and features such as location services, audio and video--all primarily consumer-centric features.

"QNX brings a lot of stuff that could dramatically alter the core of the BlackBerry experience, and that's why BlackBerry needs them. It's about modernizing," Gold 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 Matt's RSS feed Hamblen RSS. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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