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AT&T rains on PlayBook’s parade by blocking BlackBerry bridge

RIM’s PlayBook tablet duly hit the shelves on Tuesday, to mixed response – and, in the US at least, two deep flaws

By PETER WHITE

Published: 21 April, 2011

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RIM’s PlayBook tablet duly hit the shelves on Tuesday, to mixed response – and, in the US at least, two deep flaws. One was already known about, the lack of RIM’s signature application, integrated email (though that will come later). The other was AT&T’s decision to block the app that allows BlackBerry users to pair their handsets with the PlayBook. The operator said the decision was because the feature has not yet been tested properly on its network, but suspicious minds pointed to carrier fears of BlackBerry users bypassing tethering charges. This will be a blow to the PlayBook though, since RIM has been pushing its role as a BlackBerry companion heavily in the run-up to shipment.

Indeed, as on-sale day approached, RIM executives became increasingly focused on the strengths of the installed BlackBerry base, whereas at last year’s launch they had been painting all kinds of new target users for the tablet. Behind the hype, though, the PlayBook really is a companion device for the loyal RIM base – which is a perfectly sound strategy, especially for a first generation product, except that the tablet cannot currently behave as a companion, and also has an entirely different operating system to the BlackBerry. And, partly because of RIM’s own over-enthusiastic statements, the product will be judged not as an incremental gadget for the BlackBerry segment, but as a maintstream ‘iPad killer’, a role in which it will almost certainly fail.

If talk of killing iPad dragons has created over-inflated expectations for the PlayBook, the initial reaction to its appearance largely followed traditional lines. Reviewers and analysts focused on enterprise systems were generally positive and several large corporations stood up to say they would be using the product. But there were no long lines or Apple-style razzmatazz for the new device, and consumer focused commentators found it wanting in several respects when held up against the inevitable iPad benchmark.

One of the problems for PlayBook, in the run-up to shipment, has been confusion in its positioning. When it was first unveiled RIM was sticking firmly to its enterprise credentials, but since then has been talking up consumer video markets. The device risks falling between many stools – a BlackBerry companion with a new operating system; a tablet with no built-in email from a firm famous chiefly for email; a product that has taken too long to come to market, but is still accused of being rushed and half-baked.

Actual sales will be the proof, but so far challengers to the iPad have made limited impact on a sector in which optimism is waning somewhat already and RIM needs to rekindle excitement around its product, and the category as a whole. Balsillie was lending his weight to this effort in an interview with Bloomberg News, in which he dismissed many criticisms of the PlayBook as “unfair”. He reacted in particular to accusations that the tablet was an unfinished device, saying the base of 60m BlackBerry phone users could use the PlayBook to read email. “A lot of the people that want this want a secure and free extension of their BlackBerry.” He added: “I like our chances for a lot of share. We’re very excited about where we are.”

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