CES: Failed Tablets That Weren't: Success Despite Predictions of Doom, Part II

Will the BlackBerry PlayBook be a rousing success or a crushing defeat for RIM? We'll find out in a few short months.
Written by Scott Raymond, Inactive


CES 2011 is just around the corner, and this is the second in a series of articles deals with tablets that should have a strong showing.

Another device that I was originally going to take to task is the BlackBerry PlayBook. Until fairly recently I was a diehard BlackBerry fan, choosing BlackBerry over iPhone and Android for my primary smartphone platform. But over the past two years I started to notice a disturbing trend; RIM was going down the same path that Palm Computing did.

Years ago, before smartphones, PDAs were the big thing. And at the top of the food chain were the series of devices based on PalmOS. In fact, they helped usher in the smartphone era. The inventor of the Palm Pilot, Jeff Hawkins, branched off to form a new company called Handspring which used PalmOS as the basis for the Treo smartphone. Eventually Handspring was absorbed back into Palm Computing.

The issue with Palm was complacency. At the time, the only major competition in the PDA and burgeoning smartphone market was Microsoft's Windows Mobile line of products. At the time, Microsoft still had not learned the lesson that was continually pounded into them from the first iteration of WindowsCE 1.0: Keep it simple. Trying to squeeze the Windows OS into a handheld device is counter-intuitive. You're turning people off.

The lack of suitable, challenging competition resulted in Palm coasting, relying on its previous reputation. They made no major changes to the OS, and as time went by customers complained about a lack of innovation necessary to keep up with the increasing demands of mobile users. Sony Electronics, the makers of the best Palm PDAs in terms of quality and design--the Clie line--saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship. They chose not to participate further in the PDA market, realizing that smartphones were the next big thing.

Palm Computing was dithering around and losing market share. This created a vacuum, one which RIM was perfectly suited to fill. They weren't resting on their laurels, and in a very short amount of time the plethora of BlackBerry devices from RIM had eaten Palm's lunch. Palm struggled to hold on, promising new devices that would meet customer demands for new, innovative devices. But after years of doing practically nothing, when they finally did release their new WebOS-based devices, it was already too late. No one cared, and no one was buying them. Being rescued by HP caused nothing more than a blip on tne radar, and consumers still aren't interested.

BlackBerry had quickly established itself as the new enterprise standard for smartphones. The browser was pokey and unsuitable for any but the lightest web surfing. But the email client and device design were perfect for messaging by business users. Unfortunately, RIM fell into exactly the same pattern that Palm Computing did; they stopped innovating, and when something new and exciting came along they were unprepared to meet the challenge of the new competition: the iPhone.

It goes without saying that I am not a fan of a great deal of what Apple does. I cannot deny, however, that the iPhone changed the landscape of smartphones. It's fairly well-known that the iPad was Apple's original project, and that the opportunity to create the iPhone from that temporarily put the iPad itself on the back burner.

This is the point when any company that wanted to continue competing in the smartphone market really needed to step up and match Apple's iPhone in terms of usefulness, design and ease of use. Sadly, no one did, and Google was still in the development stage with their Android operating system. RIM apparently did not remember the quote from George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I am aware that Winston Churchill's misquote is more famous, but this is where it actually comes from.

RIM chose not to remember the mistakes of the past, which is exactly how they managed to secure a huge chunk of the smartphone market when they capitalized on Palm Computing's hubris. In doing so, Apple's iPhones and the smartphones based on Google's Android were able to eat huge chunks of their potential growth. People continued to buy BlackBerry devices, but not nearly as many as the people that were buying Android and iPhone devices.

Unlike Palm Computing, however, RIM has finally started to read the handwriting on the wall. They are still a large, viable company. And they have invested heavily in a major shift in the direction of their BlackBerry operating system and devices. According to RIM, QNX will be the future of the BlackBerry operating system. It's a big risk; there aren't any apps for it yet except for promises from a few major developers. It's also a major shift in design and functionality that might not go over well with their core customers.

That being said, it IS a positive direction. And they're doing it while they still have a major chunk of the smartphone market still in their pocket. Palm Computing's last major iteration was version 5 in 2002, and they had almost completely faded into obscurity when they introduced WebOS in January, 2009. But it was too late for them. The new Palm Pre and Palm Pixi garnered very little interest from potential customers. They would have vanished entirely if they hadn't been for HP buying up the company. Some people, like me, think it's only staving off the inevitable and a waste of HP's time and money.

So RIM announces this year that they are throwing their hat into the tablet ring with the BlackBerry Playbook. RIM has been reluctant to let reviewers and developers get their hands on a working unit. Developers are given access to an emulator platform for developing apps rather than the device itself. That suggests there are some issues to be worked out with the device, either with the operating system or the hardware.

The specs of the BlackBerry PlayBook appear to be very close to those of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, with the exception of additional storage and a dual core processor--welcome additions to any portable tablet device.

So far, reception of the PlayBook has been positive in spite of lack of access to the actual product. Videos of the PlayBook in action show a good looking device that compares favorably with an iPad. No official release date has been set yet, but according to a recent investment call detailing third quarter earnings, RIM has said that the PlayBook will be available during the first quarter of 2011, possibly March.

I had my doubts about RIM banking on a radical shift to a new operating system, and the restricted access to the device itself reveals some unresolved issues that would be detrimental to marketing and public relations. However, RIM has shown to be very aggressive about cooperating with their developer partners to release a mature, viable product as promised. They are not resting on their laurels, and they're taking a big chance to keep their company up to date and relevant in the face of growing competition.

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