Research In Motion, the BlackBerry maker, unveiled its first tablet device, the PlayBook. It has a seven-inch screen and weighs less than a pound. RIM is targeting professional consumers and the device has two cameras to enable video-calls, unlike its rival, Apple’s iPad, which has none. It will be available to retailers in early 2011. LG Electronics, Samsung, Dell and Hewlett-Packard are also launching tablet devices.
The early days of personal computing were marked by a spectacular free-for-all as companies big and small fell over one another in a mad rush to become the dominant player in a brand-new business. Now history is repeating itself as one technology firm after another piles into the fledgling market for touch-screen “tablet” computers, which are set to disrupt the computing industry. On September 27th Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian firm that makes the BlackBerry smartphone, became the latest to announce plans for a tablet when it unveiled its PlayBook, which will go on sale in early 2011.
RIM joins a long line of businesses, including Dell, Samsung and Hewlett-Packard (HP), which have set their sights on winning a chunk of what promises to be a whopping market. Todd Bradley, a senior executive at HP, predicted this week that annual sales of tablet computers could hit $40 billion within a few years. But the firm that HP and its rivals would love to beat is Apple, which had sold 3m of its impressive iPads by June, only three months after it came to the market.
Apple’s success has triggered a frenzy of innovation. Soon consumers will be faced with a bewildering array of tablet devices, from Samsung’s Galaxy Tab to Dell’s Streak, with many different screen sizes, different operating systems and various online libraries of software applications, or apps, that can be run on them. Amazon is rumoured to be developing a tablet device that will use Google’s popular Android operating system.
The biggest challenge for firms touting tablets will be to make their devices stand out from the crowd. That is where RIM reckons it has an edge. Although the word “Play” figures in its tablet’s title, the gadget is mainly about work. The company plans to capitalise on the popularity of its BlackBerry smartphone among corporate road-warriors to promote the PlayBook as a must-have business tool. At RIM’s developer jamboree in San Francisco this week, there was much talk of “advanced security features”, “out-of-the-box enterprise support” and other phrases that make the heads of corporate IT departments salivate. The PlayBook also boasts features such as a built-in high-definition camera for video conferencing on the go.
A pad of multimedia
RIM is understandably keen to defend its turf against the threat posed by iPhones and iPads, which being stylish and easy to use are starting to make inroads into businesses. But RIM is also hoping the PlayBook’s features will help it appeal to a broader audience. The device has an impressive new operating system developed by QNX, a firm which RIM bought earlier this year, and it boasts powerful multimedia capabilities. John Jackson of CCS Insight, a research firm, reckons the PlayBook is likely to cost much less than Apple’s iPad, the cheapest version of which sells for $499 in America.
In spite of all this, RIM’s new baby is unlikely to become a bestseller because it suffers from at least two handicaps. The first is that at launch it will have only Wi-Fi connectivity built in. Users wanting to connect via a mobile service will have to link their tablets to a BlackBerry device and connect through that. This will make the PlayBook less appealing to people who are not already RIM customers.
The second handicap is more serious. Simply put, consumers will have relatively little to play with on their PlayBooks. Developers have been working overtime to churn out apps for the iPad and for the growing number of tablets that will use Android. Apple’s tablet can also tap into the several hundred thousand apps already available for the popular iPhone too. So the PlayBook’s apps library—with the exception of its business-related offerings—is likely to look anaemic alongside those of its main competitors.
There may be another hitch too. Soon after the PlayBook hits the shelves, Apple may well be ready to announce a new set of iPads that will have even more impressive features than their predecessors and almost certainly will be cheaper too. Having seized tablet-computing’s crown, Steve Jobs, Apple’s determined boss, isn’t likely to give it up any time soon. ~ The Economist ~