The first app created for Research In Motion 's much anticipated PlayBook tablet isn't a game, or a diet tracker or even a handy navigation device.
It's a tool designed by an insurer to prod people into signing up for a corporate pension plan.
Given that there are more than 20,000 apps available for BlackBerry smart phones, and customers are on average downloading more than two million per day, RIM's decision to give Sun Life Financial one of the first cracks at testing an application for its yet-to-be-released tablet speaks to the technology giant's focus on the business market.
But it says more about the strategy Sun Life is using to try to capture a larger share of Canada's lucrative business for group pension plans. Sun Life is the largest player in that market, which promises to grow after Ottawa's recent decision to bolster Canadians' retirement savings by having private-sector companies, such as insurers, manage a new pooled pension plan, rather than expanding the Canada Pension Plan.
"It's the first app actually written anywhere in the world for the PlayBook," said Thomas Reid, Sun Life's senior vice-president of group retirement services. (A spokesperson for RIM confirmed that Sun Life's app was "one of the first," but was unable to say whether it was the first). "It's a real catalyst for changing behaviour," Mr. Reid said. "We actually are quite convinced it's going to be very powerful in getting higher enrolment rates."
The app is designed to overcome one of the biggest hurdles faced by group retirement plans: inertia. When an employer hosts an information session about a pension benefits plan, employees often never get around to filling out the paperwork required to sign up. Research from the United States shows that wireless enrolment can dramatically increase sign-up rates.
So when Sun Life decided to build an enrolment app, it approached RIM to see if it could do it on the PlayBook. Sun Life's Canadian business has a main office in RIM's hometown of Waterloo, Ont., and Sun Life CEO Don Stewart and RIM Co-CEO Jim Balsillie have previously gotten together to discuss their interest in Canada-China business relations. The two spoke about Sun Life's potential app, and decided to give it a go last year. Each company set up a staff team tasked with making it happen.
Once the PlayBook is launched - expected within the next few months - Sun Life staff will take the tablets with them to information sessions for corporate clients. For example, if they talk to 25 workers about their employer's retirement benefits plan, each of the 25 will be given a PlayBook to use during the session with an app containing all the forms they need to sign up.
The Sun Life app has the built-in ability to monitor each person's progress in filling out the paperwork, so the session hosts will know if someone is lagging behind and needs assistance.
Mr. Reid said the company expects to start such sessions in mid-March. He said RIM's encryption technology was the key reason Sun Life turned to the PlayBook. "We're dealing with members' information and their money, so that encryption technology was really important to us."