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RIM plays catch-up with PlayBook - but with a new ally

A BlackBerry DevCon attendee takes a photograph of the new RIM PlayBook this week in San Francisco

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the smart phone war, RIM had several years' head start on Apple. In the tablet war, RIM is already almost a year behind.

With the announcement that RIM will launch the PlayBook tablet computer early next year, attention now shifts to RIM's ability to catch up with the success of the iPad.

Part of the difficulty in figuring out that question is that, by the time RIM launches its product, some time around the iPad's one-year anniversary, Apple may also launch the second generation of its tablet.

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"Not only do we not know what RIM's device will look like, we also don't know what [the new version of the iPad]will look like," said Deloitte technology analyst Duncan Stewart.

Working in RIM's favour, however, is the fact that no company other than Apple has yet to make a splash in the tablet market, leaving the field still relatively open.

In large part, however, RIM's ability to provide the first real challenge to Apple in the tablet market will depend on the software powering its device.

The PlayBook runs on an operating system that's entirely different from that of any other BlackBerry product, designed by a software firm called QNX that RIM recently purchased.

Quietly, QNX is becoming the most important piece of RIM's future.

"Everyone expects the QNX software to migrate across the BlackBerry platform," Mr. Stewart said.

"In the short term, a new operating system is a barrier for developers. In the long term, developers go where the customers are."

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When RIM first bought QNX, the smart phone maker saw the company as an entryway to the car market. QNX specialized in building niche operating systems for various industries, and the original RIM strategy had them designing such software for car entertainment and communication systems – the thinking was that many of the owners of high-end cars also own BlackBerrys.

Today, QNX is at the heart of RIM's boldest business decision. The company's operating system is expected to not only run the PlayBook tablet, but one day also all new BlackBerry smart phones. That alone makes learning the system vital for BlackBerry developers.

The PlayBook runs on a QNX operating system called Neutrino, which QNX executive Dan Dodge describes as "pretty damn advanced." Indeed, the software is designed to work on much larger combinations of processor all working at once. Variations of the software are currently running everywhere from medical devices to nuclear reactors.

When the PlayBook launches, it will come with two preloaded "identities" – a corporate one and a consumer one. For example, if a user stops using the device for a while and their password login session times out, all the active corporate apps will lock down, whereas the consumer ones won't.

That balance of work and play is present in virtually every aspect of the new RIM tablet, including the choice of name.

"A playbook is how you succeed, but that word "play" is not forgotten," Mr. Dodge said.

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For RIM, the PlayBook introduction comes at a time when the tablet is starting to become a business staple. Technology giant and RIM partner SAP, for example, recently equipped many of its top executives with iPads. Other companies are starting to do the same.

There are still plenty of unanswered questions about the PlayBook – its price, its battery life, whether it's compatible with BlackBerry smart phone apps. However, it's clear RIM is positioning the device as a must-have for consumers and businesses.

"In 2010, any device that's expected to sell tens of millions of units must cater to consumer and enterprise," Mr. Stewart said.

"Everything now bridges that divide, and it's partially BlackBerry's fault – that's the device that first said your business life is your personal life."

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