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The Blackberry Playbook will be a gaming platform – the writing is on the tablet

Blackberry Playbook

An abbreviated version of this article has previously been
published on the Technorati Technology Channel.

Now that the Blackberry Playbook has been released it is fairly obvious that RIM is putting the building blocks in place for a future positioning of the Playbook as a gaming platform, most likely in their next model. After sifting through the last few week’s industry chatter and reviews of the Playbook it seems that this connection has gone unnoticed.

The Playbook tablet received rather mixed reviews when it was released on April 19. Most reviewers liked the fast dual-core processor, the sleek design, the excellent stereo sound, and the crisp HD video. However, the reviewers were dissatisfied with the buggy software and the lack of available apps. Another thing they disliked was the need to connect with a Blackberry phone for native email, calendar etc. The most extensive reviews can be found here, here, here, and here. The impression of the Playbook is of an unfinished product that was rushed to market, though RIM promises upcoming free software upgrades.

Fair enough. But RIM is clearly positioning the Playbook for the enterprise market in this first iteration. The Playbook only has WiFi connectivity and to access the mobile networks or access your email app you need to establish a Bluetooth bridge with your Blackberry smartphone. This might seem like a clumsy solution but is actually a “CIO-friendly” move. Most corporate users in the target market already own a Blackberry smartphone. The corporate email will still reside inside the smartphone, with its very high security. If the connection is lost, no sensitive information remains on the Playbook. This would enable RIM to avoid the complexity of making the Playbook as secure a platform as the traditional Blackberry handsets right now. From a marketing perspective, it is also the right tactical move for RIM to get the tablet accepted as a dull product in the enterprise market before embarking on a gaming strategy.

There are a number of indications that the Playbook is designed to be a gaming platform. The new operating system QNX that RIM bought last year is a fast and very stable real-time OS. In embedded systems where stability is absolutely critical such as in cars, satellites, the military, medtech, and industrial equipment QNX is an established market leader. QNX will easily compete with Android, iOS, and WP7 in terms of raw performance. And at the Blackberry developer conference last fall, the QNX founder Dan Dodge said: “The Playbook will be an incredible gaming platform for game designers”. One of RIM’s top exceutives called it a “party machine“.

The design choice by RIM to equip the Playbook with high quality sound, HD-video, and a fast dual core processor also fits with this strategy. Another strong sign of RIM’s commitment is the recently announced alliance with the two cross-platform game engine firms Ideaworks and Unity. Support for QNX is currently being developed. This will make it easy to quickly port the 100s of gaming apps using Ideaworks SDK to enter the Playbook ecosystem.

Once Ideaworks has added QNX to their C++ cross-platform tool (Airplay SDK), I expect intense activity behind the scenes followed by a splash launch of 100s of fast games running native code on the Playbook when RIM releases the next model of the tablet. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that RIM chose the name Playbook.

For some time, bashing RIM and Blackberry has been popular among industry pundits. Their sagging market share is viewed as proof that it’s only a matter of time before Blackberry will be a dead platform. But don’t underestimate RIM.

With QNX and the recently acquired Swedish UI framework from TAT they are assembling an excellent technical platform. All they need now is a way to migrate apps into their ecosystem. Obviously, attracting apps is a top priority for RIM and they have chosen to use as many paths as possible to enter their new platform. QNX on Playbook supports Flash, AIR, and sandbox app players for Blackberry Java plus Android 2.3 apps. It also supports the cross-platform tools WebWorks (for HTML5/JavaScript), Airplay SDK and Unity 3 (for C++ games), and native SDK (for C++). Expect future Blackberry phones with QNX to be equipped in a similar way.

Another of RIM’s strengths is a strong foothold in two attractive market segments: corporate users and the 16-25 youth market, though RIM is not present in all geographical markets.

RIM’s stronghold in the corporate market is based on their seamless integration of secure email while the youth market is driven by network effects from the instant messaging app BBM (Blackberry Messenger). In markets such as the UK and Indonesia where the BBM has reached a critical mass it has become a must have in the youth market segment. BBM has even superseded the popularity of SMS in this market segment. You need a Blackberry to be part of the BBM messaging network.

Making gaming apps a high priority is a logical move for RIM, enabling them to attract the needed critical mass in the youth market segments in countries where Blackberry’s position is currently weak. It might even be the case that the smaller form factor of the Playbook (lower weight; 7 inch screen vs. 10 for the competitors) is a way of making it easier for teens to carry it around. Even though the gaming platform strategy is viable on its own it might just be a means to promote the real killer app for Blackberry – BBM.

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