Research In Motion's BlackBerry-branded Playbook has won the tablet wars.
Actually, no, that statement probably deserves a little bit of adjustment: RIM's 7-inch tablet hasn't exactly put a dent in the iPad's blockbuster sales run, but nonetheless it's one of the few touch-screen devices on the market to actually survive the Apple juggernaut-something you can't say about some other high-profile devices, including Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad.
That's not to say the PlayBook doesn't face major challenges. RIM's tablet shipped around 500,000 units in its first quarter of wide release-a mere fraction of the number of iPads sold during the same period. (RIM's been tight-lipped about actual sales, although third-party analysts suggest they're not fantastic.) According to a July 13 posted by the blog Boy Genius Report, the company also subsidized the unit cost to carriers.
"RIM's thought process was that they hoped if they put a product in the carrier's hands that was less than full margin, it would entice the carriers," an unnamed source within RIM told BGR. "RIM isn't making any money on the PlayBook."
The PlayBook's lack of native email without an associated BlackBerry device, the source added, was an off-putting revelation to the carriers. RIM has been pushing through regular software updates to PlayBook owners, most of them incremental tweaks to performance.
Certainly the analysts seem down on RIM's chances overall. "We believe RIM has now squandered nearly every opportunity and competitive advantage it enjoyed through ineffective R&D resource management, delayed product launches and misreads of the competitive environment," Morgan Stanley analyst Ehud Gelbum wrote in a note to clients, according to a June 16 Reuters report.
Earlier in August, Sprint canceled plans to launch a 4G version of the PlayBook, although RIM passed that off as a strategic decision. "RIM has decided to prioritize and focus its 4G development resources on LTE," it wrote in a statement. "We remain excited and committed to delivering innovative and powerful 4G tablets to the U.S. market together with our carrier partners." For the moment, the PlayBook remains WiFi-only, although users can tether it to a BlackBerry device.
As demonstrated by HP's out-of-nowhere decision to kill the TouchPad after a mere six weeks on the market, a tablet franchise in these times of iPad dominance is a fragile thing. The Motorola Xoom failed to excite audiences, and Android tablets as a whole-despite sheer number of new entrants on the market-have only managed to seize around 20 percent of the overall market, according to new data from ABI Research.
That turbulence, combined with RIM's generally perilous financial situation and willingness to cut its tablet sales projections, means the PlayBook's situation could change-for the worse-at virtually any moment. But for the time being, and despite the doomsayers, the tablet seems to be holding on. Considering all the failed aspirations of tablet makers in the space, you could count that as something of a qualified victory.