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David J. Smith, senior vice-president of mobile computing, holds a BlackBerry PlayBook as he speaks about the upcoming software revamp. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

David J. Smith, senior vice-president of mobile computing, holds a BlackBerry PlayBook as he speaks about the upcoming software revamp.

(Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

Technology

The guiding hand behind the revival of RIM's PlayBook Add to ...

At a meeting with about 10 of Research In Motion Ltd.’s senior managers in Waterloo, Ont., last September, the man tasked with reviving sales of the smartphone giant’s struggling PlayBook tablet came to a firm conclusion.

The company was about to announce a significant delay in a software upgrade for the PlayBook, frustrating shareholders and consumers alike. This gathering was the first time the executives were seeing all of the new features that were being considered for the device.

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David Smith, who had been handed control of the PlayBook in the summer, watched a demonstration of the new software, designed to stem withering criticism from consumers and technology experts about the tablet’s shortcomings. The software was to give users the ability to type onto the device using the keyboard of a BlackBerry smartphone; an e-mail inbox with all sorts of new functions; an improved calendar in which the days of the month grow larger and bolder as events are added; and a contacts feature that pulls in LinkedIn information and a news feed about a contact’s company.

Though it would take months to perfect, Mr. Smith had a clear feeling that September day that the decision to delay the upgrade – to make users wait for months while “PlayBook 2.0” was built – was the right one. He felt that, if RIM could pull it off, the PlayBook might do for its tablet customers what the first BlackBerrys did for cellphone users, improving their efficiency and their ability to communicate.

Now he gets to put that belief to the test. RIM’s huge overhaul of the PlayBook is expected to come out this week, offering the company a second shot at getting it right.

“I knew we had to get these features in, we had to do something that would make a difference,” said Mr. Smith, senior vice-president for mobile computing, in a ground-level boardroom at RIM 20, one of the company’s many buildings that dot the city of Waterloo. “Think about this as a salesperson, you’ve got an unfair advantage. This is what made BlackBerry so compelling 10 years ago. The people with a BlackBerry had an advantage over other people around the table. … This time, it’s with a tablet.”

RIM has not made much progress in the tablet space to date. It is well behind Apple Inc.’s industry-leading iPad and other manufacturers that sell tablets running Google Inc.’s Android software.

When RIM rolled out the PlayBook in April, 2011, the device lacked many features that users had hoped for. The company immediately said a software upgrade was coming “very, very soon” – and then announced in October that the update would come only by February. Despite the PlayBook’s powerful hardware, it was panned by critics for its software flaws.

Now, Canada’s largest technology company is clearly hoping the looming release of the PlayBook OS 2.0 software update will spur widespread adoption of the tablet.

The PlayBook’s new features, with the exception of its ability to crisply run Android’s numerous apps, seem mainly geared toward RIM’s key corporate customer base. Indeed, the software update is timed to coincide with the launch of BlackBerry Mobile Fusion, which is a version of RIM’s secure enterprise service that can manage non-RIM devices such as iPhones, and BlackBerry Balance, which will allow IT departments to push work-related apps out onto a corporate firewalled section of employees’ PlayBooks.

As companies adopt the PlayBook, of course, it makes more sense for them to keep their BlackBerrys, too – even as U.S. government agencies and large corporations increasingly adopt BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies.

“It will excite people to buy the PlayBook again,” Mr. Smith, 51, said as he showed off the device’s new functions. “My job was coming on and really ensuring that when we made the call, that when we put [the February release date]out there that we had a plan.”

There has been some excitement around the PlayBook lately, but that’s mainly because RIM has heavily discounted the device – bringing the price from between $500 and $700 down to $200 to $300. According to a survey of 1,000 Canadians by Toronto-based Solutions Research Group, the PlayBook’s market share has surged from 5 to 15 per cent of the Canadian tablet market, even as Apple’s iPad fell to 68 from 86 per cent.

“It’s really tangible evidence that the actions we’re taking are working,” Mr. Smith said. “I’m sure we’ll see that in other countries.”

But the sales jump and the impending software revamp are not proof positive that the PlayBook’s comeback is complete. RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky said the new features “are a significant improvement and address some of the biggest shortcomings of the original,” but maintains that they will do little to address the tablet’s real disadvantages: Applications, or apps, and content.

“The PlayBook brand is significantly impaired,” Mr. Abramsky said. “RIM will have to do something in addition to PlayBook OS 2.0 to stir up consumer demand. Additionally, the iPad 3 is expected to be announced early March and may overshadow any positive news flow RIM gets.”

The revived tablet puts RIM’s latest acquisitions on display as well. Gist and Tungle, which specialize in contacts and calendars, respectively, were bought last year and helped develop the functionality that convinced Mr. Smith and others it simply wasn’t good enough to carry over the BlackBerry e-mail experience to the PlayBook.

Marc Gingras, now senior director for Tungle within RIM, joined with about 20 of his employees and helped build the software that will soon roll out onto hundreds of thousands of PlayBooks. Despite the long timeline since the PlayBook was launched, Mr. Gingras said there were no major development roadblocks and that it was a positive experience adapting to a work environment with RIM’s vast resources.

“Our first thing was, we came up with mock ups and the UX (user experience) guys said, ‘We can help you with that,’ ” he said. “And, holy crap, it was like, ‘These guys are good.’ ”

One thing that won’t come out on the new update, however, is a native Playbook application for BlackBerry Messenger, which currently works when the tablet is tethered to a BlackBerry smartphone. Mr. Smith noted their decision to not include the app in this update, stressing they wanted to “take it to the next level.” He did not provide a date for an upgrade.

Mr. Smith, who has been at RIM for more than six years, said he has felt the harsh criticism hurled at the company. He was the one who broke the news of the PlayBook software update’s delay to BlackBerry fans in October, which prompted an outpouring of online censure. On a Friday morning last week in RIM’s hometown, though, he was decidedly more upbeat.

Typing onto his BlackBerry Bold 9900, which is connected wirelessly to his PlayBook, which is plugged into a projector, he wrote: “Welcome to Waterloo.”

Follow on Twitter: @iainmarlow

 
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