SAN JOSE, Calif. – Research in Motion will launch in February a beta program for its PlayBook tablet aimed at business users. It expects to tap consulting and software firms, possibly including Accenture, SAP or Tata Consulting Services, to help drive the program into Fortune 500 accounts.
"A queue is forming to pilot the technology, we are identifying beta candidates and we are creating a [PlayBook] pre-order process for business customers," said Alec Taylor, vice president of software, services and enterprise at RIM. "There's a lot of demand," he said.
The move is a natural one for RIM which has a broad base of business customers for its Blackberry smartphones. But the company faces steep competition and at least one big technical hurdle.
The Blackberry is a Java application environment. The PlayBook will support Java at a future date RIM has not specified. It currently supports Adobe AIR and HTML 5 applications environments running on a real-time operating system RIM acquired in March with QNX.
The software discontinuity is a real issue, but "how much of an issue is still unclear," said Ryan Bidan, senior product manager for the PlayBook at RIM. "For many customers, the right solution is not to take existing smartphone apps and scale them up to a larger screen, but to move PC and Web apps over to it," he said.
Indeed, RIM is marketing the PlayBook as a device for business users interested in shifting from desktop PCs to mobile devices and cloud-based services.
RIM has yet to announce the price for the PlayBook which will be generally available before April with a seven-inch 1,024x600-pixel LCD. It plans to build a family of PlayBook tablets for use both by consumers and businesses.
By the time the PlayBook debuts, the Apple iPad will have been in the market for nearly a year. This week in a telephone conference on quarterly earnings, Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook said Apple sold 7.3 million iPads in the last quarter, up from three million in the previous three months.
"The iPad moved from early users to mainstream and enterprise users in record time," he said, noting many Fortune 500 companies now have iPad users or pilot programs. "It's a new category that analysts say could quadruple in a few years and we have had three quarters lead on the competition," Cook added.
Indeed only four companies showed tablets at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2010, and two of those products have yet to make it to market. By contrast, more than 100 companies showed tablets at CES in January, said Harry Wang, a senior analyst at market watcher Parks Associates (Dallas).
They came from PC makers such as Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo and Toshiba as well as smartphone and consumer companies such as LG, Motorola, Panasonic and Samsung.
"Probably 80 percent won't be able to claim even two percent market share in a couple years," said Wang. "The Motorola Xoom was my favorite because the specs closely matched the iPad, especially in battery life," he said.
RIM grabbed a significant position in smartphones thanks to being early with a handset that could handle email. It's less clear what real differentiation it offers in tablets with the PlayBook, besides support for Adobe Flash also offered on many Android and Windows tablets.
"We've been with enterprise customers over a decade and are seen as the gold standard in security, device management and efficiency," said Taylor of RIM.
The PlayBook uses a dual ARM Cortex A9 core Omap 4430 processor from Texas Instruments running at 1 GHz.