Will RIM’s PlayBook Flip, Fly or Flop?

With the announcement of its PlayBook device, Research In Motion this week joined the ever-growing list of companies rushing to bring out tablets of their very own.

The company seems to be focusing on the enterprise, with the hope that corporate users will love their PlayBooks so much that it will spur consumer demand, much like what happened with the BlackBerry smartphone.

However, the usefulness of mobile devices depends in part on how many apps they can access, and RIM is very much overshadowed by Apple and Google in this area.

“If the PlayBook is going to be fun to use, it needs to have apps,” Andrew Eisner, director of community and content at Retrevo, told the E-Commerce Times. “Let’s see how long it will be before ‘Angry Birds’ shows up on it,” he said, referring to a popular game available on platforms like Android and iOS.

Will RIM be able to attract enough app devs to make buying the PlayBook worthwhile? Will it see the PlayBook successfully adopted first in the enterprise with a ripple effect into the consumer market? Or will the PlayBook suffer the same fate as the BlackBerry, which is being squeezed by both the iPhone and Android smartphones?

The Apps Have It

Marketing mobile devices successfully is a numbers game. The vendors need to have enough devices in the market to make it profitable for developers to create apps for them. However, they won’t be able to sell too many devices if there aren’t enough apps to satisfy users.

It’s the huge number of apps available for iOS devices that has contributed to their runaway success. There are about 250,000 apps in the iTunes App Store for the iPhone, about 25,000 of which are for the iPad and the rest for the iPhone, though some iPhone apps can also be used on the iPad.

Google’s Android Market app store has about 100,000 apps, and that number is growing.

In contrast, RIM has about 10,000 apps in its App World, which supports BlackBerry phones. Can it attract developers who will create more for its tablet, which runs on a different operating system?

“How many platforms will developers be willing to support?” Retrevo’s Eisner asked. However, he conceded that RIM may be able to attract developers “just because it has such a huge installed base and this nice enterprise-friendly platform.”

RIM needs to attract app devs in large numbers quickly if the PlayBook is to be a serious contender.

“No one has a lot of enterprise applications on their tablets yet, so the PlayBook is not as strongly focused on enterprise buyers as you might think,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told the E-Commerce Times.

That could impact demand for the PlayBook.

“There just aren’t that many apps for the PlayBook, so RIM may lose the app numbers war,” Carl Howe, director of anywhere research at the Yankee Group, pointed out.

However, it is possible that RIM’s strong user base might just give the company enough potential to pull in app devs.

“One of the things people forget about the iPad is that the apps cost more than iPhone apps, and you could easily end up spending hundreds of dollars on apps for the iPad at (US)$5.99 a shot,” Retrevo’s Eisner remarked. “There could be a situation where developers are getting more money per app but sell less apps,” he added.

Thinking Outside the App Dev Box

Perhaps RIM has more than one option when it comes to app creation.

“IT can consider building apps to run on BlackBerry OS 6.0 and QNX,” Maribel Lopez, principal analyst and founder of Lopez Research, pointed out. “The idea is to capture the executives who like shiny new toys, and if the CEO carries a PlayBook instead of an iPad, IT will support it and the device could gain traction.”

QNX is a commercial Unix-like real-time operating system aimed primarily at the embedded systems market that RIM acquired when it bought the company of the same name in April.

“The QNX operating system has good credentials from the real-time OS space,” Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told the E-Commerce Times. “It looks like RIM is emphasizing the Web environment for development, which is a clever way to tie both OSes together,” Hilwa added.

“I spoke with several companies, and they were interested in the PlayBook,” Lopez Research’s Lopez said. “I think there is a good chance that, as enterprise apps become mobilized, they will be designed to run on this.”

Quality vs. Quantity

RIM might be following yet another path when it comes to apps — instead of having so many available that users end up dazed and confused, it might go for a smaller number of apps that are tightly focused on the business user.

Could that strategy work?

“RIM’s app gap is a real problem it needs to address,” the Yankee Group’s Howe told the E-Commerce Times. “The good news is that RIM’s apps are likely to be those that actually run corporations like Oracle and SAP,” he added.

PlayBook Trickle-Down Economics

Apple’s invasion of the enterprise market began in earnest when iPhone and iPad owners insisted on using these personal devices at work because they liked them so much. RIM is perhaps standing this approach on its head, hoping that enterprise users will like their PlayBooks so much that they popularize them as consumer devices.

That’s an approach that worked for RIM with its BlackBerry smartphones. Will it also work with the PlayBook?

Consider this: The PlayBook has two cameras, both of which can record high-definition video simultaneously; stereo sound; video conferencing capabilities; and a media player that “rivals the best in the industry,” RIM boasts.

Is that too consumer-ish for the enterprise? That depends on whom you talk to.

“The product as named and presented appears to be more of a consumer than a business offering, much as if RIM is channeling Apple badly,” Enderle said. “RIM has to focus on being a better RIM; it will never win trying to out-Apple Apple.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“With the consumerization of business, you have to have a good consumer product if you want it to be a good enterprise product,” Lopez Research’s Lopez told the E-Commerce Times.

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