RIM PlayBook: One Device, Two Faces

Is it flexibility or multiple-personality disorder? That's the question around the forthcoming PlayBook tablet from BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM). Announced last fall and due in stores by April 1, the PlayBook is not a mere clone of an iPad, as most forthcoming Android tablets seem to be.

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What's different about the PlayBook is that it's two tablets in one. I'm still not sure whether that's a good idea, nor do I believe that the folks at RIM are certain, either. But it's an approach that stands out and is worth exploring.

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The PlayBook's BlackBerry Face

Where the PlayBook differs from every other tablet, real or announced, is that it must be tethered to a BlackBerry (via Bluetooth) to access secured services such as email and VPN access that a business would make available via BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). A PlayBook cannot connect to BES, or the services that BES provisions, without going through a BlackBerry smartphone. When the PlayBook is not connected to its BlackBerry companion, those BES-managed services -- such as corporate email and calendars -- don't even appear on the PlayBook's screen.

When connected to a BES-managed BlackBerry, the PlayBook allows access to those services and acts essentially as a larger window into the BlackBerry. It's almost a thin-client approach, except that the BlackBerry app's display is reconfigured to take advantage of the PlayBook's larger screen, not merely scaled up or displayed in a window at BlackBerry size.

RIM says it chose this BlackBerry-required approach so that IT would not have to manage additional devices; all IT sees via BES is the BlackBerry. (The forthcoming BES 5.0.3 will let IT manage which BlackBerrys can be paired to which PlayBooks, so there is some management involved.) RIM also argues that users always have their BlackBerrys with them, so PlayBook users won't need to worry about getting BES connectivity. Ironically, the RIM exec who told me this had left his BlackBerry at home that day, so he couldn't actually use his PlayBook prototype to connect to BES and show me how it worked.

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I'm not convinced about the BlackBerry-required strategy. There are many situations in which users wouldn't have BlackBerrys but could benefit from having a tablet -- for example, in hospitals, training centers, factory floors, and the like. Many of these workers don't need a smartphone for business purposes, but they could benefit from a tablet. Additionally, some of these workers cannot be given smartphones; take, for instance, health care workers whose data access is restricted to when they are in the hospital facilities -- that is, only when they are in Wi-Fi range. To use the PlayBook, companies would be forced to issue smartphones to all these workers, and so RIM's strategy could backfire.

RIM's plan also is meant to tempt companies to (re)standardize on BlackBerrys, given that BES can't manage other devices; it's a ham-fisted approach to try to reverse the BlackBerry exodus now occuring in business.

You can of course use a PlayBook when not connected via a BlackBerry. You can run non-BES-provisioned apps and connect to the Internet over Wi-Fi -- just like with any tablet or computer -- for Web access and use of non-BES-provisioned email accounts, such as those using the IMAP and POP3 protocols. You can also run PlayBook apps not provisioned via BES; you can install personal apps and business apps directly on the PlayBook.

Worrisome to me is that RIM's execs can't yet say how non-BES-provisioned apps would be managed on the PlayBooks, for which there are no non-BES management tools. If you work in a hospital, a warehouse, or a maintenance hangar that wants to issue PlayBooks (but not BlackBerrys) and have specfic apps on it for job-related use, you'll need to manually install the apps and hope employees don't add any more -- or so it seems at this point. That's no different than the situation with Android devices, but it's less management than Apple's iOS provides for the iPad if you use a third-party management tool such as Good for Enterprise or MobileIron.

So far, your choice with a PlayBook is management via BlackBerry or no management at all. When the BlackBerry personality is not active, you get essentially an Android-like tablet. My guess is that RIM will ultimately understand it needs to provide PlayBook models that can be managed directly by BES over Wi-Fi connections, but it could be a year or more from now before it gets there. Given RIM's constant selling of its high degree of control (if you use BES), it seems very odd to me that RIM is not offering that control to the PlayBook for the times you don't need a BlackBerry but want to use the PlayBook for enterprise purposes. Maybe security isn't that important after all, or maybe the PlayBook's enterprise utility is limited to the things a BlackBerry user would do.

As a result, the PlayBook's enterprise role is likely to match that of the BlackBerry (and be restricted to that diminishing pool of customers): for users who need the BlackBerry's unparalleled levels of security and management. That's proving to be a small subset, even at banks and other high-security environments, even though a RIM exec told me he believes the experimentation with Apple iOS and Google Android devices is just a phase that companies are going through as part of an exercise in consumerization-driven experimentation that is sweeping businesses today. He also believed the perpetual need for high security and control that CIOs have will reassert itself and, by implication, everyone will come back to requiring BlackBerrys. Fat chance.

The PlayBook's "just another tablet" face
Without a BlackBerry, a PlayBook is just another tablet -- though one that runs on a new operating system (BlackBerry Tablet OS, formerly known as QNX) for which there will be few applications, at least initially. It will be very much like an Android tablet in that its security and management will be substandard for most companies, offering less in that department than an iPad does.

But many businesses, and most consumers, don't need such security and manageability, or at least they don't think they do. For them, the non-BlackBerry experience on the PlayBook will be perfectly accessible. It will play Flash and YouTube videos, access IMAP and POP3 email (by far, the most popular email protocols for individuals and small businesses), surf the Web, and run various PlayBook-compatible BlackBerry apps and native PlayBook apps available at the BlackBerry App World online store.

The PlayBook won't be able to communicate over 3G or 4G cellular networks, so it'll likely be usable only within a home or business's premises -- unless you use a mobile hotspot device such as a MiFi or a hotspot-capable smartphone such as the Verizon iPhone 4, some Android devices, some BlackBerrys, and some laptops.

In other words, it'll be like pretty much any Wi-Fi-only Android tablet. Yes, the PlayBook will have unique user interface aspects, but so far I've seen no hint of any features that will really matter to most users. Its app-switching approach is elegant, but the PlayBook prototype I briefly saw otherwise seemed to act like every other tablet.

That Androidness could be good or bad for the PlayBook: good because there's clearly a lot of interest in such personal tablets, and RIM's BlackBerry brand could help the device stand out from the sea of me-too Android devices; but bad because there will be a slew of Android devices coming from companies with strong brands such as Motorola Mobility and Samsung. Also on the minus side, consumers have come to view the Android brand as the mobile equivalent of Windows, and just as users seek Windows PCs rather than PCs that happen to run Windows, most will seek Android tablets rather than tablets that run whatever tablet OS. Of course, Apple is the exception here: Its unique OS is a major source of strength for it in both the mobile and PC markets. But banking on being another Apple is a long-shot bet, especially for a conservative firm like RIM.

Do the two personalities complement each other?

Ultimately, for RIM's PlayBook's multiple-personality strategy to work, the two personalities have to complement each other. In the context of the BlackBerry/BES environment, the PlayBook has to make sense as a productivity tool, which will mean having appropriate apps and Web services available to be more than just a big screen for your BlackBerry. When the tablet is in the "just another tablet" context, it too has to make sense, providing a reasonable user experience in its own right for games, video, music, email, Web, and basic productivity needs.

If users see the PlayBook with its BlackBerry business face on and understand it also has a "just another tablet" consumer face, they may decide they like the idea of a device that can adjust itself to its context, even if it requires having a BlackBerry to do so. Otherwise, I fear they'll simply be confused why it works one way on the factory floor or job site and another way at home. Such confusion will lead them to make a safe choice (Android or iPad) for their personal use and relegate the PlayBook to the few clear corporate-required (and thus corporate-issued) uses.

My conversations with RIM execs leads me to believe that the real impetus behind the PlayBook strategy was to bolster the BlackBerry in business while having a product that would fly in the consumer market. But those same conversations gave me little sense that RIM has thought through what it takes to accomplish this goal in either market. It is an odd balancig act, after all: to be tightly controlled in one context and uncontrolled in another. I also noted a strain of head-in-the-sand, "when will they get over this dalliance with others?" sentiment clouding some of their judgments.

With the PlayBook slated to launch within the next 10 weeks, we'll soon see if the PlayBook's two personalities work well together in a balanced yin-and-yang relationship -- or if RIM has created a Jekyll-and-Hyde creature.

This article, "The two faces of the RIM PlayBook," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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