Why BlackBerry's tepid tablet strategy could be its fatal flaw

Can you be a mobile leader without a cutting-edge tablet?

Ever since BlackBerry first launched its PlayBook tablet back in April 2011, the company's tablet strategy has been flawed.

Here are some real head-scratchers: First, the BlackBerry PlayBook shipped without native e-mail and PIM apps, even though BlackBerry, then Research In Motion (RIM), knew its e-mail, messaging and business-related focus was what attracted the bulk of its users.

In addition, the PlayBook did not at first support the proprietary BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) IM app, one of the most popular BlackBerry features. And the PlayBook was deemed an "enterprise-grade tablet" by BlackBerry months before its official release, but it couldn't even connect directly to the company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) software. (PlayBook users had to employ Microsoft's ActiveSync technology to connect to corporate resources.)

BlackBerry eventually released the BlackBerry Bridge software to let users with BlackBerry smartphones connect to corporate resources and use BBM, but the app was buggy and did not provide a high-quality user experience.

Can You Be a Mobile Leader Without a Cutting-Edge Tablet?

BlackBerry has always been flying by the seat of its pants when it comes to tablets. Yet these days tablets are more popular than ever, and BlackBerry appears to be continuing on the same directionless path.

In late April, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins made the following comments at a conference in Los Angeles:

The PlayBook tablet was launched nearly a year before Heins took the chief executive role at BlackBerry, so it's unclear if the company would have launched the PlayBook at all under his leadership. But the CEO's recent comments suggest he does not see much of a future for his company in the tablet market. This could explain why the PlayBook has not received any software updates since February, despite hinting in January, at its BlackBerry 10 launch event, that the PlayBook would receive an update to BlackBerry 10 in the not-too-distant future. (The BlackBerry PlayBook runs the "BlackBerry Tablet OS," which is built on the same code foundation as BlackBerry 10, but is a much earlier version.)

Thanks to a recent tweet from the official Twitter account of BlackBerry Mexico that was promptly removed, it's rumored that the PlayBook could get BlackBerry 10 in the coming weeks, though no mention of the much-anticipated software update was made in early May at BlackBerry Live, the company's largest event of the year.

I reached out to BlackBerry for comments on the possibility and for answers to more detailed questions about its tablet strategy. Though a company rep promised to get back to me before the end of last week, I still haven't received any related information. (I'll update this post accordingly if I do get some.)

At the same LA conference in late April, Heins also issued the following gem:

"In five years, I see BlackBerry to be the absolute leader in mobile computing -- that's what we're aiming for."

But can a company be a leader in modern mobile computing without a strong tablet offering?

I say no, and I think that BlackBerry's tablet strategy, or lack thereof, could actually undo the progress it makes with BlackBerry 10 on smartphones and prove to be the company's fatal flaw. Here's why.

Tablets Feed the Mobile Ecosystem

I'm not a huge fan of tablet PCs. Sure, I own a few of them, and I use one every day. That's why I know that, for me personally, they're a luxury; tablets don't really do anything that PCs can't. As such, not everybody needs a tablet.

But everybody wants one, and that's been good enough to create a massive market for the gadgets. In fact, global PC shipments are expected to decrease by 7.8% in 2013, due largely to a shift in PC buying trends as users consider alternatives such as tablets for more of their computing needs, according to research firm IDC. (IDC is a sister company of IDG Enterprise, CIO.com's publisher.)

Tablets themselves may not be essential these days, but mobile ecosystems are. And tablets are an integral part, if not the most important part, of any successful mobile ecosystem today. Both Apple and Google, BlackBerry's most significant competitors, realize the importance of healthy mobile ecosystems -- hardware, software and services. And they've each sunk billions of dollars into developing products and services to round out their respective offerings.

Mobile ecosystems make it easier for customers to employ multiple devices without buying the same apps multiple times and having to sync data and settings across various gadgets. Reliance on a single platform or ecosystem is not necessarily a good thing; some are designed to lock people in and limit user choice. But there's clear value in investing in the ecosystem that best fits your needs.

On the services side, BlackBerry is building up its BlackBerry World app store with movies, TV shows, books, and mobile applications in an attempt to keep up with Apple's iTunes Store and Google's Play store. But on the device side, Android and iOS tablets continue to grow in popularity, while BlackBerry appears to be letting its PlayBook die a slow death.

BlackBerry needs to focus on BlackBerry 10 on smartphones, so it's the right move to put tablets on the back burner for now. But it's a huge mistake for the company to forsake tablets and tablet users entirely. Every month that passes without some information on the future of the PlayBook results in more PlayBook users jumping ship or potential customers choosing a tablet from a BlackBerry competitor.

The first two BlackBerry 10 smartphones have been well received, and the company has made a lot of progress in the past five months. But without a tablet strategy, the progress could be for naught.

Give BlackBerry Users an Inch and They'll Take an iPad

Take, for example, the stereotypical BlackBerry user, who not only purchased a BlackBerry tablet when it was first released, but who has also already bought a new BlackBerry 10 phone. Let's call him "Kevin."

Kevin has owned his PlayBook tablet for more than two years. The volume up and down buttons don't work well anymore, and the display is scratched. It's time to think about a new tablet...but another PlayBook isn't an option, because the hardware hasn't really changed in years. (BlackBerry released a 4G/LTE PlayBook with a cellular radio and faster processor in August, but the hardware is much the same.) That iPad mini and the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 look mighty appealing. So, with some reservations, Kevin buys an iPad. All of his friends told him to go with the iPad over an Android tablet and he listened.

Skip ahead another year, to the summer of 2014. Kevin loves both his BlackBerry Q10 and his iPad mini. But he accidentally dropped his Q10 while cycling, and it won't turn back on. It's time for a new phone, and he's considering another Q10, but Kevin's always been a little interested in the iPhone. Now that he's been using a ton of iOS apps for the iPad, he's and spent hard-earned money on them, the iPhone is even more appealing. So he goes with iOS again.

And there goes another one-time loyal BlackBerry user, who still really liked his BlackBerry smartphone, but made the switch to iOS anyway.

The point: Even if BlackBerry 10 smartphones continue to impress users, it won't mean much without a solid tablet component in the BlackBerry ecosystem.

I think Thorsten Heins has guided BlackBerry truly thus far, and the company is on the comeback trail. But if Heins honestly believes BlackBerry will be the "absolute leader in mobile computing" in 2018 without a serious tablet, the worst of its troubles may be ahead.

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Al Sacco

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