Research In Motion is positioning its upcoming PlayBook tablet as mostly a WiFi device, walking a delicate line between touting the device's BlackBerry tethering as a feature and trying to appeal to those who own other smartphones.
"There's a misperception in the role of tethering," Ryan Bidan, a senior product manager at RIM, explained during a Jan. 14 meeting with eWEEK. "The PlayBook is a standalone WiFi tablet first." One that just happens to boast 3G tethering via a user's nearby BlackBerry.
RIM refers to that tethering feature as "BlackBerry Bridge," and in theory, it will provide additional layers of security for tablet users. For example, removing one's BlackBerry from tethering range will "disappear" the PlayBook applications related to messaging and other security-sensitive features. Users can also set expiration dates for the PlayBook's cached data, as well as more stringent password policies. Tethering also allows the BlackBerry's encryption key to reside solely on the smartphone.
For more security-minded professionals, that could well ease fears about bringing tablets into the enterprise. However, RIM faces substantial competition in the segment from the likes of Apple's iOS and Google Android, which are also being pressured to boost the security of their own offerings.
RIM is also focused on what it calls "enhanced apps," which incorporate BlackBerry APIs, and in theory allow the programs to take advantage of features such as BlackBerry Messaging. The ability to build BlackBerry applications using Flash, RIM's executives argue, also gives the platform more versatility than Apple's iPad, which currently dominates the tablet market.
The proliferation of devices capable of creating mobile WiFi spots, including the "personal hotspot" feature on the new Verizon iPhone 4, could also help RIM's PlayBook prospects. In a statement released during this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sprint said that the BlackBerry 4G PlayBook would be the first PlayBook model to include wide-area wireless connectivity. Nonetheless, the PlayBook faces a number of devices, including the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, whose built-in 3G functionality could be seen as a value proposition.
The PlayBook relies on a proprietary operating system based on software acquired during RIM's takeover of QNX Software Systems from Harman International in April 2010. It emphasizes multitasking, with the ability to swipe your finger along the sides of the screen to cycle through applications; "flicking" one of those applications' thumbnail images will close it down. RIM is currently tweaking the software for better battery life, with executives claiming the device will provide "a full day's work" on a single charge.
Despite the competition offered by the burgeoning tablet market, RIM remains bullish on the PlayBook's prospects. "I think the PlayBook clearly sets the bar way higher on performance, and you're going to see more," Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of RIM, told analysts and media during the company's Dec. 16 earnings call. "I think with the PlayBook ... we're going to set the new standard on performance and tools, very powerful tools. And we're growing really fast."