Tuesday, September 28, 2010

RIM's PlayBook -- An Android Tablet?

The most important thing about Research In Motion's new PlayBook tablet announcement isn't the form factor -- a 7-inch screen tablet -- but rather that there may be a possibility that the brand new operating system from RIM's recent QNX acquisition could be modified to run Google Android applications.

No, RIM didn't say that this will be the case. But a description of the QNX OS architecture by QNX CEO Dan Dodge appeared to hold out the hope that this new OS could easily be modified to run Android apps. As to whether RIM would actually bake this capability into a future version of the QNX OS is, of course, entirely unknown.

This does beg the question, however: If it was possible, why wouldn't RIM open up the possibility? While RIM didn't say that its new OS could be easily modified in order to run Android apps, it didn't completely deny it either. I think the capability is in the cards, and we should find out in 2011. It sure would make for a blockbuster leap into the Android marketplace with over 100,000 apps!

Android-app compatibility or not, the important part of the PlayBook announcement isn't at all that it's a tablet, but rather that this is a brand new OS. Blackberry's current OS is, at its core, well past its prime, and I experience this every day because all of my BlackBerrys take close to half an hour to reboot, and they crash and freeze frequently.

Make no mistake about it: The new QNX OS will power not only the PlayBook tablet, but also the BlackBerry smartphones starting perhaps in late 2011, but for sure by 2012.

Much has been made about the connectivity of the PlayBook. It's not that complicated, actually. Just like Apple's iPad, the Playbook will first launch with WiFi + Bluetooth. The version which adds cellular connectivity (3G/4G) will arrive later, just like the iPad 3G did.

Seeing that this is a brand new OS, it takes some time to integrate the 3G/4G drivers, and then the carriers as well as the Federal Communications Commission need some time to certify these PlayBook 3G/4G versions. It is a reasonable expectation that the 3G/4G versions of the PlayBook could arrive in the third calendar quarter of 2011.

For the first time, a BlackBerry product will have a non-removable battery, and for the first time in years, a BlackBerry product will be lacking a MicroSD card. In other words, it will be again taking cues from the iPad. The apps processor looks to be from Texas Instruments, but that is not 100% confirmed, even though most signs point to TI.

The PlayBook's RAM is a whopping 1-gigabyte, or 4 times compared to the iPad. Storage versions are 16-gig and 32-gig in the prototypes I saw, but those could change in time for the first-quarter production. Apple offers 16-, 32- and 64-gig for the iPad, and at least my iTunes library doesn't fit in the 32-gig version.

Based on the specs and the impressive description of the stability of the brand new OS, the PlayBook looks like a class-leading product, for a 7-inch tablet. But therein lies the rub: It's just 7 inches. I think it's a mistake for anyone to offer "only" a 7-inch tablet. I think what people primarily want is a 10-inch tablet, which can be used as a laptop replacement as long as the software evolves sufficiently. A 7-inch tablet will probably not be a laptop replacement for more than a very few people.

Perhaps RIM will offer a 10-inch version of the PlayBook soon enough. There aren't any signs that this will happen, even though logically speaking it would seem easy for RIM to make one of those too. If in the end the PlayBook was to be deemed a failure, I believe the cause would have been that it was a 7-inch tablet instead of a 10-inch.

Count me as a skeptic. While it is true that all the signs are that this will become as good a 7-inch tablet as I have seen, I also think most people will be buying 10-inch tablets. For this reason, I don't think Steve Jobs is losing sleep over RIM's first PlayBook product. But I've been proven wrong before.

What about the stock? Not only the new PlayBook tablet, but more importantly the all-new OS, should make RIM much more valuable than it was Monday morning. Those who believed RIM was in trouble had better start covering because it looks like RIM will now be offering a much wider range of products starting in 2011 and increasingly in 2012, based on an all-new and seemingly very capable OS.

Sept. 27, 2010, was without a doubt the most important day in RIM's Blackberry history since the launch of the first Blackberry in 1999.