BlackBerry PlayBook: The Android Tablet to Own?

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Has Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) found a recipe for how to compete with Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and its iPad on a more interesting level? The PlayBook will support Android apps and launch with more than 200,000 available apps as a result, while it retains its own appeal of a still trendy brand and a device that has been diligently developed and isn't exactly a quick shot at the iPad. That, however, may already be its disadvantage ... and the reason for its failure.

Two months ago, Apple's Steve Jobs told analysts and reporters that there will be no iPad rivals this year. Despite the wave of options, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI  ) Xoom, and the Blackberry PlayBook, it seems as if Jobs' confident note was justified. During the iPad 2 release keynote, Jobs repeated his argument that the iPad is well ahead of its rivals. "Ahead," of course, is a word that isn't so simple to define in the tablet space: "Ahead" in what, exactly? Samsung, Motorola, and RIM define the meaning of this work differently than Apple.

What we have seen so far is largely scatter shooting: attempts to take advantage of a market Apple has created, rather than attempts to build a market, as Apple does. While other tablet makers still have the mind-set that tech specs will capture the interest of buyers -- as they did in the PC market -- Apple appears to be focusing on more lifestyle-oriented characteristics of tablets, such as their appearance, affordability, and brand perception. There is enough reason to believe that Apple has done its homework in this market -- moreso than anyone else so far.

The Galaxy Tab was a first shot at the iPad, but it did not really have the software platform to compete. Even Google refrained from demonstrating or even mentioning the Tab as an Android tablet in public. Motorola's Xoom is the first technically competitive Android tablet. But it is priced out of the market at $800. I am not quite sure how tablet manufacturers usually do their market research, or how Motorola could have been convinced that people would stand in line for an $800 Android tablet. Apple has repeatedly said that the iPad sweetspot is just under $630. This is the target manufacturers should be looking for, probably slightly below rather than above. If they try to copy Apple, then they need to go all the way, and not just chew up the specs.

First analyst expectations have come in, and it seems that the Xoom will be another Android tablet flop.

RIM has just begun pre-selling the Playbook and there are some notable differences in this device.

First, it is a BlackBerry. It already has a certain perception and brand quality that may be beneficial in the tablet market. BlackBerry still carries lifestyle implications, and if you own and love your BlackBerry smartphone, there is a good chance that you may consider a PlayBook (despite the fact that it is a rather silly name with a meaning that doesn't exactly speak to its target consumers). It is an interesting move that the PlayBook is Wi-Fi only at this point, but there are tethering options out there (AT&T now offers it for $15 in addition to the 4GB -- $45/month smartphone data plan, and T-Mobile is offering free data tethering with its regular "unlimited" (5GB) plan). So, in occasions when you really need data access via a cellular data network, you still can, if you have the right provider. Besides, we believe that there will be a trend in which smartphone and tablet data plans will have to be unified: How many data plans are consumers really willing to subscribe to?

RIM also said that the Playbook will be compatible with Android apps, which is an ingenious move. It is silly to assume that a new tablet product can create an app market from scratch, and we know that tablets need apps to succeed (which will be a problem for Hewlett-Packard's tablet). Then there is the $499/$599/$699 price structure, which surrounds the $630 iPad 2 sweetspot and matches Apple's tablet. RIM hits the mark on those requirements.

There are downsides, however. RIM is testing the 7-inch screen space, rather than the 10-inch screen market, which has been established as the norm by Apple. There is no information on whether consumers would prefer a 7-inch tablet over the 10-inch versions, and we have not heard from any marketers how well a 7-inch tablet could do against an equally positioned 10-inch versions. It is a clear risk for RIM.

The PlayBook has also design disadvantages as we believe that subtle differences in the appearance of the design of such a product can be reasons to complete or drop a buying decision. The PlayBook is, due to its size, substantially lighter than the iPad 2 (0.9 vs. 1.33 lbs), but it is marginally thicker (0.4 inches vs. 0.34 inches) and is designed with a hard, rectangular shape. The result is a much more bulky appearance than a seemingly much slimmer iPad 2. Tablets are largely lifestyle products, and the design matters.

The inner hardware specs are superior, however. There are 5 MP / 3MP cameras as well as support for 1080p video. Future PlayBooks will be available with WiMax support, LTE as well as HSPA+. But does that matter? Or is it perception and design that makes people stand in line for such a product?

We think that the PlayBook is the best iPad (2) rival yet -- it offers the most competitive characteristics on all levels and RIM has spent much more time developing its tablet than others. However, that may be its problem as well: The iPad has defined the tablet space so far, with considerable support from the iPhone and Apple's App Store. It is unreasonable to believe that the masses of consumers really want an iPad alternative: They already have the choice of buying different versions of an iPad and every other brand may be just an "alternative." If you can buy the original and it is even priced at or below the level of its copycats, then you will get the original.

Android's success so far has been based on smartphone choices the iPhone did not provide (phone models, prices, carriers, as well Google software that is unique and works exceptionally well on Android phones). Android tablets are much more trying to copy the original, but fail to offer valuable and unique reasons for consumers to buy them. Attempts to copy the iPad will always result in copycats. Manufacturers need to learn to stop following Apple and begin establishing entirely new products. There is no other way to compete with Apple on one level.

Is the PlayBook the (Android app-compatible) tablet to own? Possibly, at least right now.


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Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2011, at 3:27 PM, barilro wrote:

    Our consulting company has just placed an order for 300 units. We use BB as cel phone and transition will be easy for our small IT department. Security, business package...we do not need to download any apps to reach that level of integration...simple.

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2011, at 3:39 PM, dicklacara wrote:


    What will you use the PlayBook for?

    Will it be used in-house or in the field?

    Will it be used with WiFi? Tethered with your BB phoness?

    Will you have any apps on the PlayBook that aren't on the BB phones?

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2011, at 3:48 PM, marv08 wrote:

    Well, almost all commenters and analysts ignore some "minor" points when it comes to these "200,000 Android apps"...

    - these are Android 2.3 apps designed for smartphones with less than 50% of the screen real estate and 4:3 screen ratios - they need to be scaled and letterboxed to run on the Playbook; as we can tell from the original 7" Galaxy Tab: a mostly abysmal experience.

    - this is a two-sided sword... having Android (kind of) on board, will make it even less attractive to write native apps, which would (potentially) deliver a better experience.

    - we do not know anything about performance (of the emulation) yet.

    - we have no idea which hardware features will be properly supported (e.g. can Android apps access the camera, can they access contact or calendar data, can they use the Internet connectivity of the host system)

    - we have no idea about the security model (will virus-laden Android apps be able to break into parts of the BB system)

    - the look and feel of Android apps is vastly different from Playbook apps and BB OS 5 or 6 apps... how many different GUI paradigms will users want (be willing to cope with)?

    All this patchworking might be attractive for geeks, but I do not see it attracting corporate or casual private users.

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2011, at 4:10 PM, AQCon wrote:

    "Our consulting company has just placed an order for 300 units. "

    wow! a whole THREE HUNDRED UNITS?!!! rimm's head receptionist's slush fund just increased by $1.17 !!!

    what kind of consulting firm is it? do you consult your clients by example, e.g. "how to blindly embrace dubious new products introduced by technological dinosaurs" ?


  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2011, at 3:05 PM, melegross wrote:

    Why are people allowed to write articles when they don't understand the technology involved.

    People, the Playbook is NOT compatible with Android. RIM themselves have stated that Android apps MUST be ported over. In other words, recompiled. In order to work on the Playbook, they will run in a special program that will support these ported apps. They won't run natively in QNX. RIM has also hinted quite strongly that they will be slow, buggy, and won't have much in the way of graphics performance.

    In addition, only Android 2.3 apps will work, not Honeycomb tablet apps. So the Playbook will be stuck with ported, slow, possibly buggy Android phone apps.

    It's time people writing articles like this get fired for writing drivel when the information is out there for them to read first.

  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2011, at 5:07 PM, jjm22 wrote:

    @melegross Thank you for pointing this out. You're absolutely correct - this machine doesn't support Android apps... just apps that Developers DECIDE to port to the Playbooks emulator.

    So, out of the box it likely supports ZERO Android apps.

    What development environment would a RIM developer use when the co-CEO's of RIM can't even agree on which development environment is the proper one to use... this is a train wreck that we can all watch happen.

    @barilro Good luck with your 300 paperweights. Glad I don't use your consultancy... you need consultants to help you make your purchasing decisions!

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