RIM's PlayBook Could Succeed Against Apple iPad

Research In Motion's PlayBook tablet faces an uphill battle against the Apple iPad and competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab. However, RIM's tablet could have an advantage in a business context.

Can Research In Motion's PlayBook take market share away from the Apple iPad?

At first glance, that appears to be a question designed expressly to bait hardcore Apple fans. Indeed, the media seems duty-bound to weigh every upcoming tablet device for its viability as an "iPad Killer," whether the competitors' specs are even vaguely comparable. But the question about whether RIM's tablet can make a dent in Apple's dominance also reflects on the nature of this growing market segment and how it could change in coming quarters.

Like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the PlayBook includes a 7-inch multitouch capacitive screen. That makes it lightweight, capable of being held in one hand, and small enough to fit in many bags' pockets. PlayBook's 1GHz dual-core processor and 1GB RAM gives it comparable power to other tablets either currently on the market or slated to appear in the near future.

The PlayBook's features also seem in line with other upcoming tablet competitors. Its browser will reportedly support Adobe Flash and HTML5, multitasking and high-definition video. The 3-megapixel camera embedded in the front of the device, paired with the 5-megapixel one in the back, can be used for video conferencing. Although RIM poured considerable resources into its new BlackBerry 6 OS for smartphones, it decided to create yet another operating system for the PlayBook, based on "powerful, user-friendly QNX technology."

RIM acquired QNX Software Systems from Harman International in April. QNX's open-platform operating system, Neutrino, previously found its way into business sectors such as automotive, aerospace, defense and medical; at the time of the acquisition, it was widely believed that RIM would leverage the software to integrate its smartphones with in-vehicle audio and infotainment systems. But RIM's QNX plans were obviously more ambitious in scope.

For enterprise customers already bound to the BlackBerry ecosystem, the PlayBook has much to recommend it. In addition to 3G connectivity via an existing BlackBerry service plan, the tablet also boasts out-of-the-box compatibility with BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The device's ability to sync information with the user's BlackBerry transforms it, at least into theory, into a lighter, slimmer laptop replacement for road warriors.

Other details remain scarce, chief among them the PlayBook's firm release date and price point. The latter will factor greatly in the device's eventual fortunes; pricing it beneath the iPad and other competitors could give RIM a marketplace boost, particularly among businesses still pinching their IT pennies in the wake of the global recession. Priced at a premium, though, could lead consumers and businesses to dismiss it in favor of other tablets.

Mobile applications are another concern for RIM. At recent company events, executives have emphasized BlackBerry's supposedly developer-friendly environment. That will attract developers to build apps and games for the platform; but given Apple's substantial lead in that category, not to mention other competitors' reliance on the rapidly expanding Android Marketplace, RIM could face a steeply uphill battle in creating a viable app storefront.

But the even more fundamental question is whether RIM's strategy-marketing a tablet more toward business users-will allow it to succeed in a market that threatens to crash and burn at least a few manufacturers. Certainly the consumer side of that market will become increasingly crowded in coming quarters; in addition to the Samsung Galaxy S and Dell Streak, Hewlett-Packard is reportedly planning its own tablets running both the Palm webOS and Windows 7.

While the consumer market is crowding up, though, a dedicated enterprise market for tablets-aside from the ones already in use by very specific segments such as engineering-remains relatively untapped. Enterprise IT administrators have already begun evaluating the iPad for use in their shops, particularly from a security perspective. But the PlayBook already features baked-in corporate data access and security, potentially giving it a huge advantage in this area.

What's more, the BlackBerry brand still holds substantial sway among enterprise customers, despite the inroads made by Google Android and the iPhone over the past several quarters. That, too, could give RIM an advantage as it aggressively markets the PlayBook to its traditional base.

So, can RIM's PlayBook take market share away from the Apple iPad? Maybe not in the consumer market, with other competitors rapidly entering the scene. In the context of the enterprise, however, the PlayBook's chances are potentially much rosier.