In the fight of its life, Research In Motion is moving up a weight class.
After months of anticipation, Canada's biggest technology company took the veil off the PlayBook - a seven-inch, high-definition BlackBerry tablet computer - at a conference in San Francisco. Designed to compete with Apple Inc.'s wildly popular iPad but also to capitalize on the Apple tablet's weaknesses in the business world, the new product is RIM's effort to build a mobile device that will appeal to consumers, yet also offers the security that corporate and government customers want.
It is also quite likely the riskiest move in RIM's history. At a time when the company is fiercely fighting off dozens of smart phone-makers in a global industry it once owned, the Waterloo, Ont., company is now opening another front in a market that is experiencing lightning growth, but in which its much larger competitor has a head start.
"This is one of the most exciting times in our history," said RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, holding a prototype PlayBook in his hand.
Although the PlayBook is significantly smaller than the iPad, RIM is squarely positioning it as a superior device, especially for corporate users. The device's built-in security and its ability to integrate with BlackBerry smart phones - allowing consumers to use an existing BlackBerry plan, instead of having to buy a new one - is aimed at conquering the growing business tablet market, something the iPad has not yet done. The PlayBook will likely have the same stringent security settings as the BlackBerry smart phone, including message encryption and integration with the same enterprise servers that run the BlackBerry's secure communication.
"RIM's betting that those business people will want an extra screen," said Kevin Restivo, a mobility analyst with IDC, a technology consulting firm. "RIM is really trying to deepen the moat it has around business users."
However, the PlayBook also packs a technical punch. It has the ability to handle high-definition video, which should make it a formidable mobile gaming and entertainment device and also strikes at one of the iPad's biggest weaknesses. Apple's tablet computer, launched in the spring with great fanfare, can't be used to play some kinds of video because it does not support Adobe Inc.'s popular multimedia software. RIM's PlayBook will - a fact that Mr. Lazaridis sought to underline when he called an Adobe executive onstage during his presentation.
"The PlayBook is ample evidence that RIM's been doing its homework," said independent technology analyst Carmi Levy. "The company targeted virtually all of the Achilles heels of the iPad and ensured the new device addressed them in some way."
The short duration of Mr. Lazaridis' PlayBook announcement indicates the tablet launch may have been a relatively last-minute addition to RIM's conference agenda. RIM shares are down nearly 30 per cent this year, and at a time when a number of analysts have turned sour on the stock, the company was under pressure to deliver on rumours of a high-profile announcement just ahead of the pivotal holiday shopping season.
However, the PlayBook won't be in consumers' hands by the end of the year. The first units go on sale in early 2011 in the United States and a few months later in other markets, likely including Canada.
Ultimately, however, the PlayBook's success will depend on what kind of content application-developers can produce for the tablet. Unlike BlackBerry smart phones, the Playbook runs on entirely new operating system software.
"RIM's ability to achieve a footing in the consumer market will depend on their ability to convince app developers and content partners to bring unique experiences to the platform," said Forrester mobile analyst Charles Golvin. "While I think they have a strong story for developers, it's not clear yet that developers will find that story - and the available market of RIM devices - compelling enough to prioritize the platform over competitors such as [Apple's]iOS and [Google's]Android."
As the initial entrant, RIM was the first smart phone market leader. However, Apple has stolen much of the limelight in recent years with its iPhone. In addition, a slew of phones powered by Google's Android operating system has also hit the market. As such, RIM's dominance, based on the enterprise market, has yet to translate into similar success with consumers.
Still, RIM's entry into the tablet market now puts the pressure on companies ranging from Dell to Cisco, HP to Apple, as the world's biggest tech firms launch their own offerings. All signs point to a booming market. At a separate technology conference Monday, Todd Bradley, HP's executive vice-president for the Personal Systems Group, estimated tablets could become a $40-billion (U.S.) market over the next few years.
"Tablets are the new frontier," said the IDC analyst, Mr. Restivo. "Everybody will be in a pitched battle for market share."