PlayBook Gets Subdued Retail Launch

Nobody expects the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet to sell as well as the iPad 2. Still, Research in Motion seemed to take an especially measured approach with its PlayBook launch, which started Tuesday in stores such as Best Buy and Radio Shack.

All along, analysts have predicted that RIM will mainly sell the first Wi-Fi-only version direct to business customers, RIM's traditional base.

"RIM, we're told, does have a lot of pre-orders for PlayBook in terms of business users," said Will Stofega, an analyst at IDC. "They have been pushed to put the PlayBook out there quicker, but they have to get past the opening days and snafus before they get to see [retail] results."

Eventually, wireless carriers such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless will sell the 7-in. tablet device, but spokesmen for all three of those carriers confirmed that they still have not named a date. Presumably, those carriers will wait for a WiMax, LTE or HSPA+ version of PlayBook to launch, sometime in the summer, analysts said.

Best Buy and RIM did not respond to queries about how the first full day of sales. However, two sales representatives at a large Best Buy store in Framingham, Mass., outside Boston, reported they only had one 16GB unit in stock, selling for $499.99, and it was being used as a demonstration unit. They said they would have more units for in-store sale, but not for another week. Best Buy, however, did have all three Wi-Fi versions of the device on sale on its Web site .

At a Radio Shack store at the Natick Collections mall in Natick, Mass., a salesman said all three of its PlayBooks in stock had sold out the first day, but said more units wouldn't arrive for another week.

It isn't clear how RIM and retailers will replenish stock of the device. Some other launch complications have also surfaced.

For example, AT&T confirmed it is not supporting the PlayBook Bridge software allowing the PlayBook to sync to a BlackBerry smartphone to receive corporate email and address book data. An AT&T spokesman said AT&T had "only just received the software and [we] are testing it to ensure it will provide a great experience for our customers."

The spokesman said RIM and AT&T were working together "to make the app available to AT&Tcustomers." Some bloggers had suspected, however, that AT&T was delaying the rollout in an attempt to develop a way to charge for tethering the PlayBook device with a smartphone.

Stofega said the Bridge software and the lack of a native email client on the PlayBook generated a "lot of miscommunication" about the PlayBook that RIM didn't need at the launch of an important new device.

RIM plans to provide an over-the-air update to PlayBook with a native email client in the summer. Meanwhile, the fact that users won't initially have email pushed to them without tethering to a smartphone adds complications. "It's something new for people and I don't know how people can do what they need to do and understand it," Stofega said.

"This is a very complex thing RIM's got going and on the mass market side, people want something easy," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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