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The Blackberry PlayBook, photographed at Research In Motion's headquarters in Waterloo, Ont. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The Blackberry PlayBook, photographed at Research In Motion's headquarters in Waterloo, Ont. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

RIM makes a play for its future Add to ...

The PlayBook is a litmus test for innovation in this country. Though not manufactured here, in most respects it is a made-in-Canada device. It was designed in Waterloo; the critical piece of software inside it - the operating system that makes everything else on it run, known as QNX Neutrino - is a Canadian invention. So is its web browser, and much of the technology that encrypts data flowing to and from the device to make messages more secure.

Much of this, in particular QNX, will become the standard for every piece of hardware the company makes from now on, including all its phones.

"I think we were very successful at combining all this Canadian-built technology into the PlayBook and into our super-phone future," Mr. Lazaridis says. If the technology works, he sees it as a potential springboard into much bigger things for RIM - an entryway into everything from car entertainment systems to home automation.

The PlayBook is a part of the blueprint for taking RIM deeper into the consumer market, as well as finding growth in its traditional base of government and corporate clients. It's an audacious strategy. If it succeeds, RIM just might regain the ground it has lost in the smart phone market, while finding new sources of revenue. And one day the PlayBook may come to replace the universal remote control, as the tablet already has done in Mr. Lazaridis's own living room.

But if the strategy fails, then arguably so does RIM. At the very least, it would relegate it to No. 3 status for a long time to come, a poor cousin to Apple and Google - two companies that five years ago were not even in RIM's business of wireless communications. It would also damage Canada's prospects for a more innovative economy.

The inside story of how the PlayBook came to be is, depending on how you look at it, either the story of a renaissance or a last stand.

A tablet evolution

They started out thinking small.

For years, RIM has struggled with the challenge of moving beyond the smart phone. Some of its corporate customers had asked for what can be described as a BlackBerry laptop, which would combine RIM's famous security features with a larger screen and keyboard.

But Mr. Lazaridis and the rest of the company's executive group had many competing priorities.

They were developing new products like the BlackBerry Bold to defend their share of the market against an onslaught of competitors, not just Apple but HTC Corp. of Taiwan and South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. They were trying to capture a larger share of the consumer audience with phones like the touch screen BlackBerry Storm, which ultimately flopped. Quietly, they were also investigating new avenues for growth, such as embedding RIM products into cars for hands-free calling.

By early 2010, though, RIM executives decided to try a tablet. The engineering SWAT team assembled to draw up such a device had originally envisaged modest improvements to existing RIM products - essentially, a souped-up BlackBerry. Users would be able to view documents on a larger screen, but it would run on the same software and perform the same tasks.

That all changed with the iPad's announcement in January. Though the Apple tablet looked a lot like a bigger iPhone, it was clearly something new. Here was a device capable of playing high-resolution video, music, and displaying quality colour photography - a perfect tool for long commutes. Consumers went crazy for it. (Apple has sold more than 15 million so far.)

Suddenly, RIM was under pressure to think in more ambitious terms.

The PlayBook would need to have a lot more muscle in the hardware, so the user could do more things, faster. It would need new software, too, because RIM's aging operating system was past its prime.

An operating system is the main piece of software on a device that allows all other software to function. As such, it's one of the most important bits of technology in any computer or mobile phone. RIM's had been designed mostly to handle text-based communication, such as e-mail, the BlackBerry's original purpose. It didn't display some content well or at all, such as video and some web graphics.

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