RIM can still win

I had a hands-on play with a PlayBook yesterday — RIM's answer to the iPad, a BlackBerry tablet. It was a pre-production unit with not-yet-final software, so hardly the stuff of a review, but there was some interesting stuff there. Most interestingly, it gave me an insight into how RIM could still come out on top in the smartphone race.

Most observers, particularly Jim Dalrymple of The Loop, don't rate RIM's chances of success very highly. Seven months after announcing the PlayBook the company hasn't shipped a single one, despite announcing several enhancements coming in future versions, and that has to give one pause. Odd statements from the company's two CEOs in various interviews have only added to the impression that RIM doesn't really have a coherent strategy for the tablet market.

(By the way: two CEOs? What the heck is up with that? The C stands for "Chief" you know — you can really only have one of them. Look it up.)

A week short of the product's debut in the North American market (Australian release has not yet been announced nor even estimated — think months not weeks) the company got some pre-release units into the hands of journalists, and I was lucky enough to be among them.

Spec-wise, it's not bad. The screen looks nice, bright and clear. It takes decent photos and videos (though it crashed when I tried to take 1080p video — pre-release remember) and the processor feels snappy enough. Switching between applications was smooth, video played well, even a Flash web site that has been the undoing of many a mobile Flash implementation I've tried before gave it no issues.

I like the screen, actually. It's a capacitative touch screen, just like on the iPad (though it's rather smaller of course). It sometimes lost track of whether I was trying to swipe or pinch on a photo (pre-release remember) but RIM has rather cleverly made the entire screen, right to the edge, sensitive. That means certain functions like quitting apps can be achieved by simply swiping out of the display area. I have to admit I liked that bit better than the iPad, whose bezel is numb.

The device can run apps written for BlackBerry, or HTML5, or Flash, or (in future) Java and Android, so developers will have many opportunities to fill in its blanks. Like, for example, there's no native email client, contact manager or calendar. There are, however, a number of cool games available, and the media player —

Woah. Hang on, big fella, back up a bit there. No native email?

Let me tell you something about BlackBerry. before there were iPhones or Android or Treos or anything anyone called a "smartphone" BlackBerry was doing mobile email. Really, really well. In all the amazing advances that have happened over the past four years in smartphones, no-one has yet surpassed — come close to, even — the capability of BlackBerry for mobile email. It's what a BlackBerry does better than anything else, and it's what RIM does better than anyone else in the industry.

It's what's known in the business as a "core competency".

A decade ago, when a BlackBerry was a pug-ugly lump of plastic with a tiny little screen, it was a huge success. One of the hottest gadgets on the market — not because it was beautiful, but because it gave people what they wanted: truly mobile messaging. You could sync it to your desktop computer, but you didn't have to. Apple talks about the "post-PC era" as if it's just started, but RIM's been there for years.

So when you buy a PlayBook — a BlackBerry tablet — you might not be blamed for expecting that it would be able to do mobile email. You would, however, be wrong.

To do email or manage your contacts and calendars, you connect the PlayBook via a secure Bluetooth connection to your existing BlackBerry smartphone. The PlayBook affords you a larger screen upon which to do these things, using an app called "BlackBerry Bridge". Your email, contacts and other sensitive info is all cached on the PlayBook temporarily while you're using it, but as soon as you break the connection with your BlackBerry — your other BlackBerry, I should say — it all vanishes.

RIM touts this as an enterprise security feature. You lose your PlayBook, you don't lose your sensitive information. Except of course whatever sensitive information you've got in word processing documents and spreadsheets, which the PlayBook can do on its own, but no-one will be able to see your upcoming appointments. And if your PlayBook is in the same briefcase as your BlackBerry when you leave it in a taxi, well, it doesn't help.

This restricts the market somewhat for the PlayBook. It might sell quite well to enterprises that want to deploy tablets to their employees who already use BlackBerry. It may even find some friends among individuals who use BlackBerries and want a tablet that integrates. RIM hasn't made huge strides in the consumer space of course, but those it has got now have another product they can buy.

And that's about it. The PlayBook does some nice stuff, but it doesn't do it so much better than a Samsung Galaxy Tab or an iPad that you'd buy the PlayBook instead and do without email. And it's not such a brilliant thing that you'd buy a new smartphone just to go with it. Not on the basis of yesterday's demo at least. The final production version may be a thing of beauty such as to make the angels weep. Hard to say.

As it stands, the PlayBook may bring in some revenue for RIM for its existing customers, but I can't see any way that it's going to expand RIM's reach.

Except ...

If BlackBerry Bridge can be written for the PlayBook, why couldn't it be written for Android or iOS? Is there any reason why iPad users couldn't link to BlackBerry smartphones and use the most mature and fully-functional mobile email system that exists instead of the somewhat amusing excuse for an email client currently in use on the Apple tablet? An iPad is good enough that if it could link to BlackBerry email, people might buy BlackBerries to do just that.

But let's go further. Blackberry is, at heart, a service. The hardware has always been secondary — glorified pagers really, that only started to look like phones around 2006 or so. And for all of the PlayBook's niftiness it's pretty clear that making the best multimedia experience on a smartphone or tablet is not RIM's core competency.

What if RIM went the whole hog and made BlackBerry email available to owners of iPads or iPhones or Android devices or even Windows Phone? If I had the option to pay $30 a month for BlackBerry email on my iPad you'd be hard-pressed to stop me. I'd abandon Apple's mobile mail "solution" faster than you can say "eleven benevolent elephants".

(OK, there might be some problems getting it through the App Store approval process, but other platforms aren't so tightly controlled and you never know when Apple might be reasoned with.)

I'm not suggesting that RIM abandon hardware altogether. Of course not. There's some money to be made there, certainly. But just as Amazon sells its own Kindle hardware and also Kindle reader apps for any platform going, hardware doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all and there's money to be made in services.

BlackBerry email is the best. It just is, and everyone else is quite some time behind that level of maturity. RIM's hardware isn't the best, and doesn't really look like becoming the best soon. The promised compatibility with Android suggests pretty strongly that RIM doesn't see the BlackBerry platform itself attracting much developer support, so why be an also-ran hardware maker? Why not be the gold-standard provider of email and let the customers choose the device?

That way, however the Android/Apple/Windows/Symbian war comes out, RIM wins.

Discuss this post in MacTheForum!