BlackBerry PlayBook Hits Store Shelves, Following Lukewarm Reviews

Research In Motion's PlayBook finally reaches store shelves today, priced to compete with Apple's iPad 2 and seeking to overcome some bad reviews.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet hits store shelves April 19. Can the device overcome a spate of mediocre and negative reviews?

That remains a key question for RIM, which is depending on the PlayBook to help reinvigorate its brand at a time when Apple, Google and other competitors are making great strides in the mobility space. Although RIM's storied BlackBerry franchise retains a significant presence within businesses, analysts and pundits seem concerned that the company's products are failing to capture the hearts and minds of consumers.

According to an April 18 report in the Wall Street Journal, "Many analysts expect the company to ship somewhere [between] 2 million to 4 million tablets during the 2011 calendar year." For its part, RIM will likely stay tight-lipped on sales until its next quarterly earnings call, if not beyond.

The 7-inch PlayBook includes several features designed to differentiate it from the tide of Android tablets flooding the market. Those include the proprietary QNX-based operating system, which emphasizes multitasking, along with a touch-sensitive casing for navigating on-screen menus. With the BlackBerry Bridge tethering feature, the PlayBook can display a nearby BlackBerry's emails, calendar and other vital information-all of which disappear once the smartphone is taken out of range.

Although the Bridge may appeal to BlackBerry owners, it risks alienating those with other types of smartphones. The PlayBook features no native email app, although RIM has promised one in a future software update.

RIM has priced the PlayBook at $499 for the 16GB model, $599 for the 32GB model and $699 for the 64GB version. That places the device roughly in the middle range of tablet pricing, and toe-to-toe with the iPad 2, whose 16GB version retails for $499, 32GB for $599 and 64GB for $699.

Longer-term, some analysts have RIM pegged as a notable-but not dominant-player in the tablet market.

According to an April 11 report from research firm Gartner, Apple's iOS will continue to dominate the media-tablet market through 2015, with a 47.1 percent share. Android will nip at its heels with 38.6 percent, followed by RIM with 10 percent, HP's webOS with 3 percent and MeeGo with 1 percent. "Other operating systems" will bring up the rear with a paltry 0.2 percent.

The report also suggests that RIM will claim some 5.6 percent of the tablet market in 2011, beating webOS but lagging Android and iOS.

Gartner defines a "media tablet" as any touch-screen device measuring between 5 and 15 inches on the diagonal and running a lightweight operating system such as iOS, Android or RIM's QNX-based OS for the PlayBook.

In the meantime, RIM faces some challenges with the PlayBook. Many of the early reviews have focused on the lack of apps, with an applications storefront (App World) that feels positively sparse in comparison to those offered by Google and Apple. (In its own review, eWEEK found the QNX operating system a little buggy, although those issues will presumably be fixed by future software updates.)

"It will take time and significant effort for RIM to attract developers and deliver a compelling ecosystem of applications and services around QNX to position it as a viable alternative to Apple or Android," Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner, wrote in a statement.

The key market for the PlayBook's growth, she added, is "organizations that will be interested in RIM's tablets because they either already have RIM's infrastructure deployed or have stringent security requirements."

But consumers will ultimately make or break RIM's chances in the broader market-and the company's chances of revitalizing its brand.