RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet Preview

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The closest anyone came to the BlackBerry PlayBook outside of RIM, until last week, was to stare at the seven-inch tablet behind glass. Even at a pre-show CES event where TabletPCReview got hands-on time with the Motorola Xoom, the PlayBook was still encased and out of reach.

The floodgates have since opened as RIM had working PlayBooks on the CES show floor last week, and today hosted a meeting with analysts and press where representatives demonstrated the mobile tablet’s capabilities in real time.

BlackBerry PlayBookTabletPCReview was at CES for a brief hands-on encounter with the PlayBook, and again in Boston for the analyst and press meeting. Coming out of CES, we were impressed with the PlayBook’s speed, power and multi-tasking capabilities, and following today’s meeting, we have a clearer understanding of how RIM’s tablet will work, both for consumers and the enterprise.

First, the basics. The BlackBerry PlayBook is a seven-inch tablet device that will run the new BlackBerry Tablet OS and sport a TI OMAP 4430 1 GHz dual core processor. While some specs have not been finalized, the target weight is .9 pounds, which is closer to a Kindle than it is an iPad, and the target battery life is eight hours from a fixed unit. This is a number that RIM reiterated today despite negative press earlier this month suggesting otherwise.

The PlayBook RIM claims is shipping out in Q1 (a solid release date has yet to be revealed, though TabletPCReview was told “hold your breath” by an RIM rep at CES) will be Wi-Fi only, and will pair with a BlackBerry handset for a data connection. Sprint also plans to release a 4G PlayBook this summer, which RIM is still working on to iron out specific functionality.

BlackBerry Syncing

So how exactly does the BlackBerry handset synching work? As RIM reps explained, each PlayBook can sync with a BlackBerry in a one-to-one relationship via Bluetooth over BlackBerry Bridge, meaning two PlayBooks can’t sync to one BlackBerry at the same time. PlayBook product manager Ryan Bidan explained the syncing process is simple, possibly involving 2D barcodes, though he did not demonstrate it for the group.

Once connected, the PlayBook essentially becomes an extension of the BlackBerry smartphone, with full access to the email, calendar, contacts, as well as other documents and applications. As Alec Taylor, RIM VP of software, services and enterprise, explained, the PlayBook becomes an “always connected device,” complete with RIM’s standard BlackBerry enterprise-level security and encryption.

Once the user severs the Bluetooth connection however, that all stops. The PlayBook reverts back to a Wi-Fi tablet with full access to web applications, but not the BlackBerry and its data. Documents and data like emails and calendar info can be cached onto the BlackBerry PlayBook following disconnection, with IT administrators controlling over just how long it’s stored.

RIM reps would not disclose how long data can be cached on the PlayBook, only saying it would be “variable,” and that IT admin can also disable caching all together.

PC-Like BrowsingBlackBerry PlayBook

RIM is pushing the PlayBook web capabilities hard. The presentation referred to it as “Uncompromised  Web Browsing,” with full HTML 5 and Adobe Flash 10.1 support. Alec Taylor claimed the PlayBook will offer a “PC-like browsing experience” while talking up its capabilities for web apps and developers.

RIM may not come out and directly say the PlayBook is a better device than the iPad, which does not support Flash, but it’s hard not to see RIM’s talk of uncompromising web browsing as a veiled shot at Apple’s tablet.

Display Tech

Just like the recently revealed Motorola Xoom, The PlayBook has no buttons, and features an interesting display technology. The 1024 x 600 capacitive touchscreen display extends beyond the visible LCD area, enabling a series of unique gesture controls for opening, minimizing and switching between apps. RIM developed the controls, not the display supplier, meaning the PlayBook will be the only device incorporating the specific gestures.

Marketing Challenge

Since the PlayBook announcement last fall, RIM has been playing up the PlayBook as both a consumer-friendly and enterprise-ready device, which could present a marketing challenge. TabletPCReview asked how they plan to avoid being seen as a “tweener,” a tablet not quite right for consumers because of its business focus, and not quite ready for the enterprise because of its consumer appeal. Bidan answered, “That’s the marketing challenge,” while not elaborating further. Taylor then expanded on a comment he made earlier in the presentation, that “everyone is an end user.”

All users want power and performance he claimed, it’s a matter of  first hooking them with an emotional response based on the power, speed and function – you know, the sexy stuff. Once they are hooked, you explain that the device is also ideally suited for the existing IT environment.

Users will soon find out how RIM plans to market the PlayBook, as the company claimed they have, in the words of Alec Taylor, an “exciting” launch planned. “It’s not going to be a soft launch,” he said, adding that it will cover all mediums.

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