BlackBerry PlayBook Needs 5 Things to Succeed in Tablets

RIM's BlackBerry-themed PlayBook could gain an advantage in the tablet market if it makes some changes.

Research In Motion's PlayBook tablet hit store shelves April 19, failing to attract around-the-block lines but, at least according to one analyst, managing to sell a respectable 45,000 units on its first day of release.

Jeffries & Co. analyst Peter Misek suggested in an April 20 research note that, based on sell-through surveys taken at Best Buy and Staples, RIM had managed to sell 20,000 PlayBooks. Combined with 25,000 preorders, Misek placed the PlayBook's April 19 total at 45,000 units.

"We think PlayBook sales are far exceeding MMI's [Motorola Mobility's] Xoom sales," he wrote.

RIM is betting that the PlayBook's BlackBerry branding, combined with a unique QNX operating system and some powerful hardware, will offer it a competitive edge in the increasingly crowded tablet arena. However, the PlayBook faces headwinds in the form of tepid reviews and an absence of key features, such as a built-in 3G connection and a native email application. With the BlackBerry Bridge tethering feature, the PlayBook can display a nearby BlackBerry's emails, calendar and other vital information-but that, of course, requires an actual BlackBerry.

RIM is pricing the PlayBook models at $499 for the 16GB, $599 for the 32GB and $699 for the 64GB edition. That places the device roughly in the middle range of current tablet pricing, and toe-to-toe with Apple's iPad 2, whose 16GB version retails for $499, 32GB for $599 and 64GB for $699.

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 be close behind with 38.6 percent, followed by RIM with 10 percent, HP's webOS with 3 percent and MeeGo with 1 percent.

In other words, RIM likely has a long, hard fight in front of it. Here are some things that could help it succeed.

Embrace Android Apps

Early reviews noted the sparseness of RIM's App World offerings. If applications and games are a prime driver for device adoption, then the company could face a serious issue-one compounded by the time it takes to build up a suitable application ecosystem.

"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 the April 11 report predicting tablet market share through 2015.

In light of that, RIM might consider embracing Android applications posthaste. That could alienate its homegrown developer community, but it would ensure the PlayBook has enough applications and games available to play ball with its rivals.

Embrace Microsoft's Cloud

RIM is already planning to partner with Microsoft on the latter's cloud offerings, which will be integrated into the PlayBook and other devices. That includes RIM providing cloud-based BlackBerry service in support of Office 365, which offers the latest versions of Microsoft Office, SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online. RIM's BlackBerry Servers will reportedly connect "cloud to cloud" with Microsoft's data centers to host Office 365 data on users' BlackBerries.

The PlayBook will have the ability to port and display Office 365 data from any user's BlackBerry, via BlackBerry Bridge. This helps keep corporate data secure, since any data delivered to the tablet via the Bridge then "disappears" when the BlackBerry is removed from range. (Users can also set expiration dates for the PlayBook's cached data and enforce more stringent password policies.)

While the BlackBerry has traditionally served as the enterprise's smartphone of choice, it's been losing ground to the likes of the iPhone and Google Android devices. Tight integration with a muscular suite of productivity applications like Office 365 (or Google Apps, for that matter) would give the PlayBook a feature totally unique to tablets currently on the market, and broaden its appeal to businesses-even if those businesses choose to embrace mobility platforms other than BlackBerry.

Faster Software Updates

RIM has promised PlayBook updates such as a native email application. It needs to deliver those quickly, along with fixes for a few user-interface bugs. One of the early criticisms leveled against the tablet is that it feels incomplete-which should pressure RIM to deliver those upgrades sooner rather than later.

Integrated 3G Connection

The PlayBook is a WiFi-only device, dependent on a BlackBerry or another smartphone for tethering when outside a hotspot. That puts it at a disadvantage against other tablets on the market, which generally come with a 3G option. Issuing a future edition of the PlayBook with a 3G connection-and a great data plan-could blunt this disadvantage.

Drop the Price

At the moment, the competitors in the tablet space all seem determined to match the iPad on price. But given iPad's first-mover advantage, highly-reviewed hardware and massive application ecosystem, matching the price eliminates the one way these rival tablets could gain an advantage over Apple: dropping their price point through the proverbial floor. A 16GB PlayBook priced at $499 might not draw block-long lines, but one at $299 would definitely prod consumers and businesses into taking a second look.