Companies like Research In Motion have two big opportunities in the up-and-coming tablet market: They can either outshine Apple by being the best tablet there is, or they can hope to crack the enterprise market, becoming the equivalent of the ubiquitous Dell workstation PC.
So far, it appears that RIM and its BlackBerry PlayBook will have a tough time achieving either of those goals, and could be a bust.
We had some hands-on time with one at Mobile World Congress earlier this month in Barcelona. We were advised that we were not using a final version of the PlayBook's software, but it probably doesn't matter.
It's just not nearly as well-designed or well-thought out as even last year's version of Apple's iOS. (Let alone the new iPad software that Apple will show off this week.) It's not pretty, not elegant, and just generally underwhelming.
It's as if there is no one at RIM who has the power/stones to say, "This isn't good enough. Re-do it and make it much better." This needs to be done over and over again.
Perhaps the problem is that RIM is behind and thinks it needs to show something, anything, so people don't forget it exists. But what RIM is showing isn't good enough. There is no reason for a consumer to buy the PlayBook instead of the iPad.
If RIM is going to have any success in the enterprise, it needs to vastly improve its developer experience.
There still isn't any proof that there will be a DIFFERENT "enterprise" tablet market than the consumer market. But perhaps if RIM can make the PlayBook vastly cheaper than the iPad, or offer some amazing competitive advantage, corporations will outfit their employees with PlayBooks and load them up with internal software.
But if that is ever going to happen, RIM needs to make its PlayBook development experience much better than it is right now.
Last week, an open letter made the rounds from a developer who wanted to make apps for the PlayBook, but was appalled by how terrible and clumsy the experience is. RIM responded, promising to make improvements.
But will that matter?
RIM plans to support Android apps on the PlayBook, but there is no proof that they will be any good, or that RIM will be able to keep up with Google's fast pace of developing the Android platform. If the PlayBook is just another mediocre Android device, that doesn't help, either.
Meanwhile, Microsoft and Nokia will make a big push with Windows, and HP will try to get companies to buy and develop for WebOS. RIM already has to fight hard for third place, and could be in fourth, fifth, or even sixth. It's not looking good.
RIM has made smart moves in the past, has a big fan base, and a strong brand, so we're not ready to completely write it off. But irrelevance is approaching if the PlayBook series can't find a home with either consumers or corporations. And so far, there's no reason to believe it'll be able to accomplish either.
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