PlayBook - BlackBerry tethering shows RIM is either clueless or greedy

RIM's requirement of BlackBerry tethering for its PlayBook tablet proves the company is out of touch with mobile customers.

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I've generally been skeptical of RIM's PlayBook tablet. It seems like a somewhat unfocused and partially unplanned attempt to jump on the tablet wagon train following the success of the iPad. One of my biggest concerns has been that RIM is downplaying the importance of third-party apps for the PlayBook while diverse app marketplaces seems to be an ever-growing sign of a platform's potential for success and user adoption.


Another concern has been nagging at me about the PlayBook, however. The fact that it seems designed to require a not just an investment in RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) but also in a BlackBerry for every PlayBook user in an organization (something InfoWorld's Galen Gruman detailed in a recent column).

Essentially, the PlayBook operates in two different capacities.

It can be a standard tablet computing device for consumers like the iPad or the plethora of Android tablets on the market. It boasts some serious specs in hardware, the ability to play Flash content, and will support an app ecosystem (one largely developed with tools from Adobe – as an aside, Flash and Adobe-based development seem ideally suited in an iPad competitor), though its still very unclear how robust that ecosystem will be. In this fashion, a PlayBook is essentially unmanaged and unmanageable since the device cannot connect to any management server, including RIM's BES, as an independent device. That leaves it as one of the least manageable tablets hitting the market – at or below the capabilities of most Android tablets and far below what can be achieved with the iPad when Apple's iOS is paired with one of several management consoles.

On the other hand, the PlayBook can be tethered via Bluetooth to an enterprise or business user's BlackBerry. When tethered and in range of the BlackBerry, the PlayBook displays any BES-delivered corporate information (email, contacts, calendars, notes) and services such as a BES-managed cloud or collaboration options like the connector to Microsoft's SharePoint. It also enforces and security policies and offers access to internally-restricted and installed apps (which are inaccessible otherwise). That means the BlackBerry essentially acts as a key to all corporate capabilities as well as to mobile broadband (as the PlayBook is a Wi-Fi only device on its own).

This leads me to two conclusions.

First, RIM doesn't really understand the demand for tablets in most business environments. In many cases a tablet is not an extension of a smartphone. In plenty of industries is may be a standalone device used by employees that have no need for a smartphone (particularly a corporate provided and managed one like a BlackBerry). Healthcare professions (particularly nursing and supportive care), education, manufacturing floor management, training, hospitality (hotels, restaurants, etc.), education, some legal professions, and human services are all markets ripe for tablets but where most staff that could benefit don't really require smartphones.

Second, and perhaps more disturbing, RIM's interest in developing an enterprise tablet is more about locking customers further into its ecosystem. I'm not saying that there's anything overtly wrong with RIM's policy of creating both the end user device and IT management solution. That does give RIM a competitive advantage but it also does enable greater security and control.

But if offering security and control was RIM's true objective with the PlayBook, why not make it fully manageable directly? Why require that every PlayBook be tied to a BlackBerry? RIM's rhetoric that users always have their BlackBerry on them and that it limited the devices IT has to manage seems like a major smokescreen to me.

They also don't seem realistic. Not everyone always has their smartphone on them (or if they do, the battery might die). And an untethered PlayBook is apparently unmanaged, breaking away any security capabilities offered by RIM's BES along with a user's access to essential resources. Call me crazy, but as a former systems administrator and IT manager, I'll take managing some more devices over risking users being unable to access what they need or risking their potential ability to use an unmanaged device.

Quite frankly, it seems like RIM's is bumbling its way into the tablet space and trying to use the PlayBook as not just a revenue stream but a way to require more BlackBerry purchases in order to effectively make use of the device. I think that's a mistake, but then I also think RIM's belief that the iPad and Android use in the enterprise and the so-called computerization of IT is a passing fad is dead wrong.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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