After the company's co-CEOs took a defiant stand in defending their strategy in a recent interview, RIM's PlayBook tablet computer has debuted to some less-than-flattering reviews. But upon reading the most-criticized aspect of the device, I can't say I'm surprised.
Though the hardware and basic user interface get good marks, things sour quickly when it comes down to the nitty gritty details of the PlayBook and its features. All the reviewers, including Gellar, Mossberg, Pogue, and others, say that the lack of native email, contacts, and calendar support is a serious problem.
In hindsight — which is of course 20/20 — wasn't this endgame obvious from the time this strategy was announced? Requiring a tablet to be linked with another device — even if it is as ubiquitous as a smartphone — takes away one of the major selling points of the tablet platform: its portability, independence and flexibility.
And though RIM is planning native support for these critical business applications in future software updates, the reputational damage is probably done — at least in the short term. In trying to differentiate its offering from Apple's, it ended up with a convoluted, half-baked solution that seems likely to hit the market with a thud.
So what can Apple learn from this? Well, it may learn that it's time to cut the cord — the USB 2.0 cord that connects the iPad to an iTunes-equipped PC, that is.
Apple has built a massive lead in the tablet market, that it is expected to hold for a while. But eventually, competitors, whether they are based on Google's Android platform or Microsoft Windows 7 or something that we haven't yet heard of, will find ways to differentiate based on the things consumers want the most from their personal technology products: portability, independence and flexibility
Gartner recently put out research asserting that the popularity of tablet computers is beginning to cut into PC sales. If people want to buy tablets in lieu of PCs — something my wife did in buying a refurb iPad when her old iBook finally hit the end of the road — they're not going to want to keep PCs around to perform critical functions like firmware updates, nor are they going to want to establish a Bluetooth bridge to access their e-mail.
And in the enterprise, companies considering using tablets for business use are going to want the least clunky, smoothest interface in order to minimize complexity in installing, using and troubleshooting applications. Judy Haddad, the SVP and CIO of Patriot Risk Management who has been an early adopter of the iPad, told me as much in an interview earlier this year:
Apple's a little short sighted in that you have to dock a iPad [with a computer running iTunes]. There's some thought that has to go toward making the iPad an independent device.
(Note, in the same article, Aflac CIO Gerald Shields referring to the "limitation" of the iTunes store.)
I caught up with Carolina Milanesi, research VP for mobile devices at Gartner, and asked for her opinion on what all this data means. She said that she doesn't expect Apple to face backlash similar to RIM due to its ability to "stand on its own feet" for day-to-day usage (things like e-mail and calendars that RIM wanted to relegate to the Bluetooth bridge).
In addition, "there have been many rumors around over the air solutions coming from Apple in the future" for things like software updates and activation, she continues. This shows that Apple does see the writing on the wall: Consumers want tablets that can work independently of PCs.
But if consumers shun PCs, how will they manage the massive amounts of data — music, movies, documents — that traditionally small tablet drives can't hold? (For example, I have about 50 GB of music and podcasts in my iTunes library, and I rotate things on and off of my 16 GB iPhone as needed.) The answer could lie as many seem to, in the cloud.
Amazon made waves a few weeks back in offering 5 GB of cloud storage free to anyone — expandable to 1,000 GB, for the right price — the perfect companion to your 16 to 32 GB tablet. Granted, there are other concerns with this model, especially around privacy — but surely there is a demand out there that other players could fill.
"I think [the PC-tablet shift] will indeed encourage more cloud-based services," Milanesi adds. "For most users, the current storage is enough as long as you have something else holding your entire library to sync your tablet with. Cloud will be where that happens."
Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio