RIM Buys The Astonishing Tribe to Polish BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet UI

RIM buys user interface developer The Astonishing Tribe to enhance the onscreen look of the PlayBook tablet and future BlackBerry devices.

Research In Motion has purchased Swedish mobile software developer TAT (The Astonishing Tribe) to enhance the interface design of its upcoming BlackBerry devices, including the PlayBook tablet.

David Yach, RIM's CTO, announced the deal Dec. 2 in a post on the company's Inside BlackBerry blog. "We're excited that the TAT team will be joining RIM and bringing their talent to the BlackBerry PlayBook and smartphone platforms," he wrote.

The developer will help plug RIM's weakness on front-end user interface, Roger Kay, founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, noted in an e-mail to eWEEK.

"RIM has been better positioned in corporate because of back-end support for things like security and manageability, but it has come up short on the front end, on the UI," Kay said. "This is where TAT is expected to contribute."

It has also collaborated with companies such as Asus, Google, Motorola and Samsung. The company's UI designs can be found in many consumer electronics devices as well as automobile infotainment systems.

"TAT focuses on delivering great user experiences, from a design, technology and usability perspective," Yach wrote in his post. "Its] design technology is used today in a variety of industries including the consumer electronics and automotive sectors."

Of all of the smartphones shipped in 2010, 20 percent incorporated TAT's Cascade UI framework, TAT reports.

TAT reportedly helped design the interface for Google's Android platform. It will also design a dual-screen phone for Fujitsu, according to TAT.

The PlayBook, due in the first quarter of 2011, is based on the Neutrino operating system from QNX, which RIM recently acquired from Harman on April 9.

RIM introduced the PlayBook tablet at the company's DevCon conference on Sept. 27.

Following the Dec. 2 announcement by Yach, the blogosphere was abuzz with chatter that with a potentially stellar UI design from TAT the Playbook might be able to present a strong challenge to Apple iPad and Google Android tablets in 2011.

Regarding the PlayBook, Ryan Kim of GigaOM wrote, "The tablet already looks pretty impressive in videos, and TAT could really help it shine."

Still, RIM clearly has some work to do to catch up in the consumer tablet market, if in fact it's possible, according to analysts. "It's at a severe disadvantage in this personal purchase space, and it's going to be forever," Ezra Gottheil, senior analyst at Technology Business Research, told eWEEK.

"Certainly it could use the input and the attention it gathers by acquiring a trendy, hot, modern UI design firm, so I think it makes a lot of sense for them," he added.

RIM needs to take advantage of its strengths in enterprise mobile security and sales to compensate for design struggles on the consumer side, Gottheil said.

"If it has a new, modern, attractive interface, then one of the complaints that the IT purchaser [has] will be muted," he said.

A UI upgrade may not be enough to fix its aging design and diminishing user interest, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group.

"One of the problems is that [RIM is] increasingly viewed as out of date in design, and a good part of that is the user interface," Enderle wrote in an e-mail to eWEEK. "A UI change may help, but it certainly won't fix this."

Or could it?

"RIM was caught flat-footed by Apple in the smartphone/tablet space and has been playing catch-up ever since," Kay said. "But clearly, the game is not over."