Oh the difference a few days can make.
I have been close to writing off the Blackberry Playbook for some time now since it seems to be arriving so late to the tablet fray.
By last fall I had started to buy into the hype about the Android operating system and I thought that by now we would see the iPad getting serious competition from a host of Android-running tablets.
So far though only the Samsung Galaxy Tab has sold in significant volume (it hit the one-million-sold mark in December) and it still pales by comparison to the iPad (it has to be close to 10 million units sold by now) and now the new iPad 2.
The news yesterday from Research in Motion that the PlayBook will be able to run Android applications, even if they are running in a dedicated player, will be big news.
That's because of the momentum behind the Android operating system in the developer community versus that of pure Blackberry Java applications.
It's all about the apps
Let me explain. Rather than a device limited to running only the 25,000 applications developed for the BlackBerry App World universe so far, the PlayBook will now also be able to run, in a sort of emulation mode rather than natively, the more than 200,000 Android applications available.
The BlackBerry PlayBook has its own operating system — BlackBerry Tablet OS — underlying it is the QNX Neutrino microkernel architecture that was acquired by RIM from Harmon International and its QNX Software Systems unit last spring.
Too much information probably but it makes for interesting context.
Up until then QNX was most used for and associated with integrated automobile computer systems. The flexibility built into QNX along with the fairly powerful hardware that is supposed to be in the production PlayBook makes for a device that should easily be able to run Android applications.
“When the [Blackberry] Playbook comes out on April 19th, it'll still be pretty early in the tablet sweepstakes,” said Sascha Segan, my friend and former colleague over at PCMag.com.
He is the lead analyst of anything mobile over there and has tested and reviewed hundreds of devices and services over the years (he is also a columnist as well as a host of the popular PCMag Radio broadcasts.
“Android tablets have no lead,” Sascha wrote me in an e-mail last night following the International CTIA conference being held in Orlando this year.
The BES advantage
Part of what has lessened my excitement for the PlayBook over the last few months is the anecdotal evidence gathered from lots of financial advisers and, more importantly, c-suite executives at financial services companies.
I have polled literally dozens of both and to a person no one was just dying for the device to come out.
At best, they were taking a wait-and-see attitude.
When I primed executives with the one clear advantage that I thought the PlayBook should have: Ease of deployment, thanks to its promised out-of-the-box compatibility with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, all of them still said something to the effect of needing compelling business applications to go with the device.
Even so, RIM claims they have 250,000 deployments of BES. That equates to literally millions of Blackberry phones, many thousands of them in the financial services industry alone.
“Businesses with BES servers will be easily able to deploy these, control them, and monitor them. There's still not much quite like BES in terms of integration, management and security capabilities,” Mr. Segan noted in our correspondence.
He reminded me of something I said in my question to him, which was that despite some early hesitations, many IT organizations have already gone over to the Apple platform.
“The question is if RIM will be so much more business-friendly than Apple that it'll make IT managers want to switch,” he added. I'm not so sure there would be switching but adding a fleet of PlayBooks would very likely be a less painful initial deployment than all those iPads.
Pairing and three's a crowd
There remains another big deployment question too.
BES aside, the PlayBook will require pairing to a BlackBerry smartphone when it comes to using 3G or 4G services (at least in its initial rollout).
No one outside RIM yet knows just how “seamless” (the word the company uses on its spec sheet) the pairing process will be. That's one layer of complexity all the tablets with built-in wireless carrier support do not have.
While I have no data to back up there being a trend, here in New York I have noticed a proliferation recently of people carrying two mobile phones. One, more often than not, is their corporate work-centric Blackberry, often paid for by their employer, the other a “personal” iPhone or Android smart phone.
I'm not sure how many of them are also carrying an iPad too but I do wonder at being required to carry a Blackberry in order to use that new PlayBook.
The PlayBook, like the iPad will have the full spectrum of WiFi radio support on board (802.11 a/b/g/n) but those that enjoy carrying a tablet when out and about frequently take for granted already the ability to almost seamlessly go from WiFi at home or work to 3G, both on the same device.
Unless you are counting on using that WiFi everywhere, you are going to need to remember to have your turned-on, charged-up Blackberry phone with you.
Many network and IT administrators I have asked about this are also taking a wait and see attitude as well. They often add, however, that they are not looking forward to the inevitable, even if small, uptick in support calls sure to follow a deployment.
Questions aside I'm excited again about the potential the PlayBook has for financial advisers.
I have also been pushing the folks at Research in Motion to get me a review unit earlier rather than later.
In an e-mail exchange that followed the company's announcement on price and availability the other day they said they were still finalizing plans on that front.
If you are an adviser considering the iPad right now you might just want to wait a few weeks and see what all of us “experts” have to say about the PlayBook — especially if you are already toting around a Blackberry smart phone anyway.
Here is a link to the full PlayBook specs.
For developer-oriented information visit the BlackBerry Tablet OS and BlackBerry PlayBook developer pages online.
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