Wednesday, April 13, 2011

RIM's PlayBook: Four Key Vulnerabilities

Research in Motion (RIM), creators of the popular BlackBerry family of mobile devices and services, is expected to launch formally its long-awaited PlayBook tablet computer tomorrow. Here are four reasons why I think RIM's new tablet may be hard to swallow for business users.

PlayBook Vulnerability #1: its proprietary operating system. In business servers, there are two largely dominant operating environments: Microsoft Windows and the converged Linux/UNIX ecosystem. In mobile networked devices for business users, it's largely Apple's iOS and Google's Android -- and RIM, at least in some segments. (Sorry, Symbian and Microsoft, unless Nokia's decision to replace Symbian's software with Windows Phone spurs growth for that platform.) In PCs for business, it's largely Windows and Linux, plus Mac/iOS in some segments. The point is, few if any segments demonstrate much if any need or demand for an operating system other than those that dominate the segment in question.

But the PlayBook will run a proprietary operating system. A marketing challenge at best and a support and integration non-starter at worst.

To users, value is all about available apps. And application developers have limited resources, which means many can't afford to develop and support versions for more than one or two operating systems. Which does not augur well for original apps written for RIM's operating system. While the BlackBerry faithful may be satisfied by a unique set of available apps, others will wonder if there aren't PlayBook versions of apps already popular on the dominant mobile operating systems.

This makes support for Android apps even more potentially important to the PlayBook's success. But so far, all RIM is offering in emulator software to run (at least some) Android apps. In this light, any perceived or actual performance degradations or incompatibilities could present as many opportunities for criticism and frustration as the iPad's lack of Flash support. And business technology decision makers and their teams are looking for fewer interoperability challenges, not more.

PlayBook Vulnerability #2: its form factor. RIM is touting the PlayBook's ability to run games and other multimedia, something about which even business users increasingly care. The PlayBook's 7-inch form factor, like Samsung's Galaxy Tab and other tablets, means current BlackBerry users can likely continue to type with their thumbs on the PlayBook. But the device isn't as comfortable for two-handed typists, or for gamers, movie watchers or Web surfers who prefer more visual real estate. And the riotous popularity of the iPad amply demonstrates that more visual real estate makes even a larger device worth carrying around to a lot of business users.

PlayBook Vulnerability #3: its connectivity limitations. While the PlayBook seems likely to support high-speed networks from AT&T, Verizon and others at some point, it's being shipped initially with support only for Wi-Fi. (A version for Sprint's WiMAX network is expected within, say, 60 days of the official PlayBook launch.) Which means only users of both PlayBooks and BlackBerry devices with corporate network connections can see real-time updates to their calendars, contacts or e-mail. At least until and unless RIM and/or its developer partners and/or savvy users begin to create and propagate effective tethering arrangements that support other mobile phones and carrier networks.

Also, AT&T and Verizon are increasingly dominating the mobile networking market in the U.S. and elsewhere. For the PlayBook not to support either carrier from Day One will be a deal-breaker for technology decision makers and mobile users at many companies. It's a situation likely to turn off users who don't already use BlackBerry devices as well.

PlayBook Vulnerability #4: it's too little, too late. Had RIM announced and delivered the PlayBook a few months earlier, the dynamics of the discussion would likely be different. However, with the iPad 2 and numerous Android tablets already available and more coming soon, RIM will have a difficult time reaching beyond BlackBerry loyalists with the PlayBook.

I'd love to be wrong about any or all of this, but I don't think I am. Whether or not you believe in signs or portents, it is interesting to note that published reports have said that the PlayBook was delayed in part because of the catastrophe in Japan and in part because challenged manufacturers had previous iPad 2 commitments. It's also not helpful to RIM's prospects that its CEO abruptly ended a recently attempted BBC interview when questions strayed beyond the PlayBook and into possible network security concerns. Not great pre-launch PR.

RIM could be in trouble long-term if the PlayBook isn't successful. At the very least, anything that smacks of lackluster adoption will cement perceptions of RIM as an also-ran in the evolving market for tablet computers and other mobile networked devices.

The BlackBerry ecosystem risks becoming the mainframe of mobile devices. That is to say, venerable and respected, and remaining in use long after being superseded, but relegated to the status of "coulda been a contender." Who'd have thought?