Commentary

RIM's PlayBook Is Still Tabula Rasa

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Let's stipulate that Research in Motion president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis doesn't have the flair for delivering the dramatic product launch that Apple CEO Steve Jobs has become known for. Who does? But that places more weight on the new product to sell itself. In the case of BlackBerry-maker RIM's PlayBook tablet computer, unveiled Monday, the device itself didn't close the deal.

Despite its sleek appearance, "less than one pound' weight, Wi-Fi connectivity, and other features, a number of key questions remain about the PlayBook. One is exactly when the PlayBook will actually be available. RIM didn't offer any specific launch date beyond "early 2011."

The company also didn't provide details on pricing or which retailers would sell the PlayBook. RIM plans to add 3G and 4G models in the future but when or from what carriers isn't known yet.

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Forrester wireless analyst Charles Golvin told The New York Times the PlayBook was "a very real product" but also "very much a work in progress." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. RIM did confirm that its tablet will use an operating system from QNX Software Systems, which it acquired earlier this year, rather than the recently released BlackBerry 6 OS.

Even so, the PlayBook press release assured that people can "use their tablet and smartphone interchangeably without worrying about syncing or duplicating data." That's something that will be hard to verify until the tablet is actually in users' hands.

Lazaridis also made clear the PlayBook is geared towards RIM's core base of business users, describing it as "the first professional tablet." But with its 7-inch screen, HD cameras and HD video capability, the PlayBook would seem like a good springboard for the company to push further into the consumer market to compete against the iPad and the surge of other tablets soon to hit stores.

Market research firm Millward Brown issued a commentary today suggesting the PlayBook could do for RIM and BlackBerry what the Kindle did for Amazon in terms of boosting its brand value. BlackBerry currently ranks behind Google, IBM, Apple, Microsoft and HP in the technology category, according to Millward Brown's BrandZ ranking.

Eileen Campbell, CEO of WPP's Millward Brown, said the PlayBook's introduction "could prove to be a coup from a branding experience." But it's way too early to say with any confidence whether the device will help reverse RIM's sagging fortunes. Let's at least wait until actual customers have had a chance to demo the PlayBook before suggesting it could be RIM's equivalent of the Kindle.

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