RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet Stands A Chance…in 2012

Business has changed since the first BlackBerry smartphone hit the enterprise in 2002. Individual workers, rather than CIOs and IT departments, have more influence now: Forrester’s data show that more than half of U.S. employees say they have better technology at home than at work, and 37 percent of U.S. information workers bring technology to the workplace that they use first at home. When it comes to tablets especially, there’s little distinction today between the enterprise and consumer market.

Here lies the challenge of Research In Motion (RIM), maker of BlackBerry smartphones and now, the PlayBook tablet: To conquer the enterprise–which has historically been RIM’s stronghold because of its White House-level security and lack of competition–it needs to sell tablets to consumers.

This isn’t impossible. Apple has had remarkable success selling the iPad to consumers and businesses. In a Forrester survey of U.S. consumers conducted in January 2011, 34 percent of iPad owners reported using their device at work. With enhanced security and dedicated support (“business specialists” at Apple Stores), we’ll see more companies join Mercedes-Benz and GE in buying iPads directly for their employees. But Apple’s success has come precisely because it puts consumers first. A typical statement we hear from executives at firms considering buying tablets is, “We’d really like a tablet that integrates better with our back-end systems, but we’re going with iPads because we want employees to like them.” Businesses care about how workers feel about technology.

Contrary to popular belief, RIM is pretty successful selling its devices to consumers, too. BlackBerry smartphone shipments, subscribers, and revenues continue to rise quarter after quarter, even in mature North American markets. Most important, BlackBerry consumer customers (“BlackBerry Internet Service,” or BIS) now outnumber BlackBerry enterprise customers (“BlackBerry Enterprise Service,” or BES).

But the PlayBook is a complicated product to sell to consumers. For starters, the “BlackBerry Bridge” feature, which displays email and BlackBerry messenger content only when in Bluetooth-range of a BlackBerry smartphone, has security appeal for CIOs but is potentially confusing to consumers. Yes, you can still get Web-based email like Gmail on the device, but there’s no native email application like there is on the iPad—and email is the No. 1 activity consumers do on tablets today. Second, compared with the iPad the PlayBook has relatively few native apps designed for the platform; it supports Android apps but only those designed for Gingerbread, not Honeycomb (not that there are many of those, either). Apps don’t matter to all tablet shoppers, but they do matter to some: 23 percent of consumers considering buying a tablet rank “Number of available apps” in their top-three criteria; 19 percent say the same about Flash support, which the PlayBook browser will have.

Whereas Apple owns its own channel–the Apple Store–to educate and sell the iPad to consumers, RIM will be relying on the Blue Shirts at Best Buy to sell its device, as well as its carrier partners and other local retailers (20,000 stores worldwide). It’s going to be a tough sell. While the PlayBook has dazzling performance and multitasking—for example, the ability to switch apps and keep a video or game running in the background—and solid hardware design, consumers will be comparing a first-generation PlayBook with a second-generation iPad. iPad will dominate tablet sales in 2011. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we see a path for RIM to gain market share in 2012. An improved version-two PlayBook must have native email, built-in security and more native apps for QNX, the RIM’s recently-acquired operating system for the PlayBook. To get there, RIM will need to port QNX to its smartphones to expand the platform’s reach and make it more appealing for developers.

Even so, the PlayBook’s appeal is likely limited to BlackBerry smartphone customers, and to win them over, RIM’s marketing execution needs to be flawless. With the recent departure of CMO Keith Pardy, RIM’s new leadership needs to step up and define and execute a vision for this product that puts consumers on par if not ahead of CIOs. Without that vision, RIM will have an expensive product failure on its hands.

Ted Schadler is a vice president and principal analyst and Sarah Rotman Epps is a senior analyst at Forrester Research.

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