RIM PlayBook: One Device, Two Faces

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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.

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