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Mobile’s expanding PlayBook

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This post is by Andy Grossman, a SmartBrief contributing editor covering telecommunications and technology

The buzz last summer, as Research in Motion was about to disclose details of what was to become the Blackberry Torch, was that the release would be a “do or die” moment for RIM, because the Canadian smartphone pioneer had yet to create a sexy device to crack the consumer market.

The Torch did OK — it proved neither a PalmPilot nor a Droid Incredible — but RIM went on doing what it has always done: sell lots of Blackberrys to people in business.

RIM’s PlayBook tablet is set to ship on Tuesday, and the hyperbole and hand-wringing have started all over again. Critics say RIM has to produce now or get left in the dust by the two-headed monster of iOS and Android.

Even acknowledging the PlayBook’s powerful QNX operating system and solid security features, the doomsayers usually point to two factors: PlayBook’s lack of basic native apps such as e-mail and a calendar and its substantially weaker brand loyalty among consumers than its media-darling rivals. RIM has gotten some credit for buying time by creating interim “apps players” to run certain Android apps, as well as applications from the earlier BlackBerry OS, but it’s not known how well they will render on the platform.

Mix in those all those uncertainties, and you get blogs predicting that RIM is about to become the industry’s next Palm or fade into a slow decline, getting overtaken by the new Nokia-Microsoft alliance.

Except that’s not going to happen.

While early critics were disappointed by the paucity of apps and e-mail support, they shouldn’t have been surprised: it’s been known for weeks that RIM would launch a stripped-down version of the tablet. Besides, the critics have missed the point. With the PlayBook, Blackberry users still have access to all of their apps and features.

In the last few months, RIM lined up partners that will strengthen tremendously its in-house development team and insure a long-term supply of enterprise apps. With its acquisition of QNX, RIM has invested in a small but dynamic company with its cadre of loyal developers.

“QNX has been around for a long time,” says senior analyst Andy Fuertes of Visant Strategies, who notes that its core of developers produce “different types of apps, more complicated apps.”

The lack of apps doomed Palm’s WebOS, but with QNX in tow and the traditional loyalty of enterprises in the bank, why can’t RIM will write a different ending? “It’s a matter of (developers) seeing the market opportunity there, and with RIM’s existing and strong relationships with enterprises, I think they’ll be OK,” Fuertes believes.

To make RIM’s case even stronger among developers, a survey released early this month showed Android developers have mixed feelings about writing for the platform due to the software’s fragmentation and the chaotic nature of its Android Market.

RIM does have a major obstacle in wooing developers: The culture’s fascination with instant analysis — how many PlayBooks will RIM sell in its first week — instead of inhaling the big picture. It will take time for RIM ‘s own enterprise app library to get up to speed.

“That will be the focus of the media — how many apps are available today,” Fuertes notes, adding that all of that could weigh on developers considering how to allocate their time and resources.

But the tablet space remains in its infancy — fewer than 5% of Americans have bought one – and Apple’s rivals have plenty of time assert themselves, especially since the endgame won’t begin until high-speed wireless broadband signals become more ubiquitous. “We’re in the nascent stages of building out broadband wireless networks,” Fuertes notes.

Even if thousands of people fail to line up for the new tablet right away, in the long term, RIM has a long-term strategy that will keep it strong. In the short term, RIM just needs to keep its loyal user base from jumping to the iOS or Android.