Sprint plans WiMax RIM PlayBook

No pricing is available yet for the tablet, which is due to ship this summer

Sprint Nextel will sell a WiMax version of the Research In Motion PlayBook tablet beginning this summer, the companies announced on Thursday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The device will be the first PlayBook with wireless wide-area connectivity, according to the companies. The announcement also represented one of the few times at this year's tablet-heavy show that WiMax has been mentioned in conjunction with the hot new product category.

RIM unveiled the PlayBook at its BlackBerry Developer Conference in San Francisco last September. At the Digital Experience event on Wednesday, on the sidelines of CES, RIM let media and analysts handle the device for the first time.

The company expects the first PlayBooks to go on sale by the end of March in the U.S. and worldwide in the second quarter. If the WiMax version is the first with wide-area network capability, those first units presumably will use only Wi-Fi, which will be built in.

The PlayBook, with a 7-inch screen, is smaller than Apple's iPad. The device felt lighter in the hand than the iPad, which comes with a 9.7-inch screen. RIM bills it as a business tablet that consumers can use, too. Its software will be based on the QNX Neutrino real-time operating system that RIM acquired last year.

The companies did not share any pricing details on Thursday. RIM is working with carriers, retailers and other distribution partners, said Ryan Bidan,senior product manager.

"It'll be competitively priced when it is launched," Bidan said.

Sprint was the first carrier in the U.S. to launch a so-called 4G (fourth-generation) mobile network, with its first WiMax network in Baltimore in 2008. It now offers WiMax in 71 markets across the country, using a network built and operated by Clearwire, of which Sprint is the majority owner. The network offers average downstream speeds of 3M bps (bits per second) to 6M bps, with bursts over 10M bps.

But Sprint now faces stiff competition from Verizon Wireless, which offers a 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network that reaches about one-third of U.S. residents. LTE has become the choice of most mobile operators worldwide planning 4G networks, including AT&T. T-Mobile USA says it offers comparable speeds with its HSPA+ network.

Several of the tablets announced this week at CES will work on 4G networks. On Thursday, Verizon and Cisco Systems announced plans to offer Cisco's Cius tablet for the LTE network beginning this spring. Samsung also plans to have a tablet for Verizon's network. Dell announced its Streak will run on T-Mobile's network. But RIM's announcement was the biggest so far at CES for a tablet using WiMax.

(Agam Shah contributed to this report from CES in Las Vegas.)

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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