BlackBerry PlayBook Faces Price, Availability Confusion

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook seems in the middle of a pricing and availability flux, after reports of canceled orders and reported price cuts for RIM employees.

Research In Motion's PlayBook is due to receive a major software update in February. However, many other details surrounding the tablet-including its price and retail availability-seem in flux at the moment.

Early on Nov. 27, tech publications such as Electronista began reporting that Best Buy was canceling PlayBook orders, quoting users on the retailer's message boards as the source. Meanwhile, Best Buy's online storefront listed the PlayBook's 16GB and 32GB models as "Sold Out Online," with no mention of the 64GB version (although the latter is available as a factory-refurbished unit). As pointed out by the various publications, Best Buy's order cancelations and Website statuses could reflect a sales run on the device in the wake of fairly substantial price cuts. The PlayBook remains for sale on RIM's Website.

Nonetheless, the events were enough for certain Websites to declare the PlayBook dead, so far as Best Buy is concerned. "Best Buy Decides It's Done With the PlayBook," read the headline on Business Insider, while Gizmodo reframed that sentiment as a rhetorical: "Has Best Buy Abandoned the PlayBook?"

The Verge, referencing "multiple" unnamed sources, suggested Nov. 28 that RIM is selling the PlayBook to employees for $99 via a "special corporate portal." Whether that price is a harbinger of further price-cuts, or an employee-only perk, remains an open question.

Neither RIM nor Best Buy responded to eWEEK's request for comment.

Certainly RIM faces challenges from analysts and pundits who see the company as beleaguered in the face of significant competition from Apple's iOS and Google Android. "Looking in retrospect, we should have downgraded in mid-October," read a Nov. 28 research note from Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu, "when the stock was $24 and our supply chain checks indicated that while its new flagship BlackBerry Bold 9900 was doing decently, the rest of its product line was lagging."

In a Nov. 17 research note, Canaccord Genuity analyst T. Michael Walkley suggested that Apple's launch of the iPhone 4S had affected sales of BlackBerry devices: "While our September/October checks indicated solid sales of new BlackBerry OS 7 models, especially the Bold 9000 series as an upgrade enterprise sale, our recent checks indicate slowing sales trends post the launch of the iPhone 4S and price reductions of the iPhone 4 and 3GS."

In addition to reports of sagging product sales, RIM faced an additional predicament in October when its network temporarily went down. That proved something of a black eye for the BlackBerry franchise, which banked heavily on its reliability, especially for corporate users.

RIM is betting an upcoming line of "superphones," loaded with a QNX-derived operating system named BBX, will help it regain traction in the smartphone arena. Those devices are expected sometime in the next few quarters. The February PlayBook update will include integrated email and other much-requested features. Along with the new hardware and software, though, RIM will also need to formulate a marketing strategy capable of drawing users back into the fold.

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