RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, unveiled last week, is the latest entry in what has become a rapidly growing field of iPad competitors. But unlike most upcoming Android tablets -- the big exception being Cisco's Cius -- the PlayBook isn't meant to compete with the iPad in the consumer market. Despite its touted capabilities for multimedia, the PlayBook is primarily designed to be a business and enterprise tablet.
It's easy to assume that the 7-in. PlayBook stands to take market share from Apple in the business world, where the iPad has already gained some ground since its arrival in April. After all, the BlackBerry has long been the de facto smartphone in business and government, aided by the fact that it is managed by RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), conventionally considered the best software for secure smartphone management.
IT control and monitoring of BlackBerries via BES has always been the crown jewel of RIM's business model and a major selling point to enterprises because it ensures device and data security that's a step above any other platform's. Compared to the iPad's limited management capabilities and enterprise features, that would seem to make the PlayBook a home run for many businesses.
But will that be true? Most arguments that have been made against the iPad's enterprise features and management are valid -- right now. The iPad currently ships with Version 3.x of Apple's iOS, whose management capabilities are limited, not to mention time- and labor-intensive to implement.
However, the PlayBook, like the Cius, won't ship until next year. By then, Apple will have updated the iPad's operating system to Version 4.2, adding to it the same rich remote deployment capabilities, device-monitoring features, and user-account-driven provisioning and management capabilities now available with the iPhone 4 -- including a wide swath of user restrictions, remote access capabilities and security features.
Apple's iOS 4.2 is due out next month.
So let's compare the iPad -- a device that is already shipping and is about to see a substantial operating system update -- with the PlayBook, which isn't even on the market and about which some mysteries remain when it comes to price, storage capacity and battery life.
Enterprise management and data
On the surface, integration with BES will be a key selling point of the PlayBook, particularly for organizations with an existing BES infrastructure. However, RIM seems to indicate that those management features and data access will require pairing with a BlackBerry, and that BES data -- like e-mail or contacts -- will not permanently reside on the device; they'll be temporarily cached on the PlayBook through the BlackBerry to which it is synced. (It also isn't clear exactly what PlayBook management features will be supported).
What happens if an employee loses or forgets his smartphone -- the one the PlayBook is synced to? Does that preclude access to the tablet? And will the syncing requirements mean higher deployment costs if every PlayBook has to be matched to a BlackBerry?
The iPad's upcoming set of management features is well documented, and it doesn't have to be paired with another portable device for access to corporate resources -- though it does have to be initially set up using a computer and iTunes. Periodic syncing with iTunes is also necessary to back up data beyond beyond e-mail, contacts and calendar that's not hosted on a corporate server such as Exchange. Management options are also growing through more than a half-dozen management console providers.
For companies that aren't already RIM customers, these options may be a powerful selling point, because they can choose a vendor and a product that best fits their existing infrastructure. In fact, some vendors offer client management capabilities for desktop and notebook computers (both PC and Mac), making them even more attractive.
In addition, virtually all of the mobile management consoles for iOS also support a variety of other mobile platforms. This may be one of the biggest advantages the iPad -- and upcoming Android tablets -- have over the PlayBook. Rather than embracing a single solution like that offered by RIM, large organizations now often manage a mix of mobile platforms running on devices with varying capabilities. Doing so offers them flexibility and reflects a new economic reality.
With corporate hardware budgets tight, many organizations have adopted a bring-your-own-device policy, where employees are encouraged to use their own smartphones and computers for work. This type of policy is almost the antithesis of the older model of company-owned and IT-deployed devices that helped RIM dominate the smartphone business market.
As a result, multiplatform management products will likely become the norm over the next couple of years because IT departments need to manage and secure hardware that contains business data -- whether the hardware is owned by the company or the employee.
Even if tablets are company-owned, smartphones may not be. And since the BYOD approach already exists with the iPad (whether officially sanctioned or not), it seems likely that it will apply to a growing range of tablets, regardless of platform.
From a business cost perspective, the iPad and other consumer-oriented tablets may beat the PlayBook simply because of this shift toward employee-owned devices.
Apps and app development
Business applications will be a big issue for users. Even though the iPad is largely a consumer device, thousands of business and productivity apps are already available for it. Many support corporate needs like CRM, project management and planning, business intelligence, document creation and access to cloud-based services. Apple also allows companies to develop applications in-house using its Xcode tools and, more recently, cross-compilers. (In-house apps were never really banned from other development tools because they don't require App Store approval.)
As yet, the PlayBook has no apps. While RIM has worked with Adobe to try and leverage technologies like Flash and AIR for apps (as well C programming, since the QNX-based PlayBook OS is a POSIX OS), it's possible that a range of apps will be immediately available when the PlayBook ships. But that possibility, for now, remains unknown.
Market position and user preference
The iPad has become a force in many business environments largely for two reasons: It was the first user-friendly tablet on the market and users began bringing the iPad to work or asking their employers to allow them to use it.
That doesn't mean it will remain the dominant tablet for business. But in organizations where it has a strong presence, by the time the PlayBook arrives in 2011, it may be hard to make the switch. And by that time, it may not just be the iPad that RIM needs to displace. Android tablets might also be entrenched in some places by then. Even the Cius may have traction, since it will be an Android device that Android phone owners may prefer.
We're still at the beginning of the tablet computing era. The iPad has a leg up by being first to the party and, in business, for having a set of applications already up and running, and management capabilities on the way. Whether it will remain the dominant tablet in business remains to be seen. But all of the talk that the PlayBook will be the business tablet when it's released is premature.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Ryan was also the co-author of O'Reilly's Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration.