BlackBerry PlayBook Has Promise, But Uncertain 'Playbook' for Success


I must admit, I had been rooting for BlackBerry on this one.

I have had a relationship with the Research in Motion brand for over a decade now. A rarity in the tech world. I received my first Blueberry (remember those?) at my first job after college, as an investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley. I was ecstatic to finally get the Internet-only connected device because it meant (to me) that I was an important enough professional at my company that my team needed to tether me to the office 24 hours a day.

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Now it has become such a fixture in my household that my 10-month-old daughter drops all her expensive, organic or educational toys to get her hands on mommy or daddy’s Blackberry. She wants one because it is an extension of us.

But the introduction of the PlayBook to industry insiders last night left me wondering whether the company had a playbook in place for first foray into the tablet space.

Research in Motion held a splashy event last night for press and industry members to kick off the launch of its much anticipated and much hyped BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. The event was held at a swanky Chelsea art gallery with demo models and company reps willing and able to show off the features of the slick gadget. Bars were stocked, serving up BlackBerry PlayBook cocktails, a concoction of white wine, vodka and passion fruit juice. Everyone was in good spirits and mingling, looking for a reason to get behind company that put the smartphone industry on the map and made it a fixture in our lives.

After speaking to everyone we could possibly strike up a conversation with at the event and going through an extended showcase of the device, attendees gathered around the stage set up clearly for a presentation. But it never happened. No formal presentation was made.

Instead, co-CEO Mike Lazaridis spoke to attendees, like myself, one-on-one, showing off his favorite features of the device. To me, he showcased PowerPoint on the tablet, and the admittedly incredible video quality and the innovative feature of taking screengrabs from video clips. But after about 10 minutes, he was whisked away by a PR rep to the next group.

It was a stark contrast to the other tech events held by companies like Microsoft and Apple I have attended where we see CEOs like Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs on stage, confidently showing off their latest and greatest invention. It was the coming out party for the PlayBook and its “parents” didn’t stand up to take credit or even give a sell job.

I have had a few chances to demo the unit, have spoken to company officials about it and have read many reviews, including the WSJ’s Walt Mossberg’s latest.

I agree with much of the criticism that’s out there. Yes, at launch, the device is just an extension of the BlackBerry and not a great standalone device. It is being released in a Wi-Fi-only model, has only 3,000 apps, compared to the 65,000 apps available just for the iPad and does not even include BlackBerry must-haves like email and contacts apps.

But promise, it still does have. As someone who has two BlackBerries – by choice – working at a company that still distributes the devices – and not the iPhone – to employees, I think Research in Motion still has the chance to make inroads with its biggest cheerleader: the corporate customer.

Interconnectivity between and tablet and a BlackBerry in a safe, secure environment is something corporate clients demand. How many of us have multiple devices - whether a tablet, smartphone or netbook - and have different information and unique email on each of them? This device, for a BlackBerry customer, eliminates that need. But at launch, it isn’t the all-in-one BlackBerry solution yet. That has limited appeal. What could really win the hearts of consumers, though, is open compatibility with Android phones.

Access to Flash, a sleek interface and true multitasking are some of the PlayBook’s strong points. It has a compact size at seven inches, weighs less than an iPad at 0.9 pounds and the screen is super sensitive, displaying images beautifully.

But, unfortunately, the Playbook v1 will not be the home run RIMM desperately needs. What the industry is looking for is not only a game changer, but a game elevator. Something that raised the bar above the iPad.

This device was designed with the DNA to be one, but was born into the world in a different form.  Ushered quickly out into the marketplace, it wasn’t even given the benefit of an aggressive playbook or, apparently, the conviction of its parents to stand behind it.

This was a missed opportunity for Research in Motion, but not a lost one. If it can get an aggressive game plan in action for version 2, it may still be able to get hold of the corporate customer, who is still buying millions of devices from RIMM.

But, like anything else in the tech world, timing is everything. RIMM needs to get the device into fighting shape and into the hands of corporate IT decision makers before the floodgates open up to the iPad and iPhone. It is already happening. The company’s executives, I also must add, need to be the salespeople leading the charge, screaming from the rooftops how much they believe in the product. And when there’s a open stage lit up at a big party, the host must never leave the crowd hanging.

What do you think?

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