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New RIM Tablet Is a Strategic Masterstroke That Ups Apple's Ante

RIM (RIMM) introduced its new BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Initial reaction has been good, although you should take it with a grain of salt, as not even top reviewers have had their hands on it. But even with actual shipping units months away, the design and market positioning make substantial statements about the company's strategic decisions. And that smart collection of choices allowed the company to answer a major Apple product offering in a way few companies have.

RIM emphasized an interesting set of capabilities that encapsulated the market you'd expect the company to focus on most -- users from mid-sized to large corporations â€" and showed key understandings about those customers and how to sell to them:

  • By calling the product "professional grade," RIM essentially positioned competitors -- not just the Apple (AAPL) iPad, but already announced tablets based on Google (GOOG) Android -- as lesser "consumer" products not up to business needs.
  • Weighing less than a pound, it appeals to people who complained that the iPad is too heavy for extended use and further targets businesspeople who get tired of lugging equipment. This essentially says that the PlayBook is meant for use on the road, not something to sit around the house with.
  • Dual-core processor chips and "true symmetric multitasking" also communicate that the device provides an emotional snob-appeal and even a hit of pandering to self-pity -- a classic combination you find in world-weary executives, for whom complaining about the weight of the world actually becomes a form of competitive one-upmanship. It's a keenly rendered and used psychological insight.
  • The note about "uncompromised Web browsing" really sticks it to Apple and its noted dislike of Adobe (ADBE) Flash. In short, if you work at a corporation, you may need to get to any part of the Web, and any product (like an iPad) that doesn't make this possible compromises you, your work, and your career.
  • It integrates with a BlackBerry, which can provide tethering and share content. Suddenly, there is no limitation on which wireless service you use, and it reinforces use of the company's own smartphone line. The PlayBook can become a big screen companion that makes the BlackBerry more convenient to use.
  • The specific focus on multimedia not only directly spells out being able to show presentations on large screens, but indirectly suggests that people can use video calling with their loved ones when traveling.
  • IT departments can impose policy controls and connections are secure, with RIM's experience in handling corporate information needs.
  • Because the company used QNX as the basis, it provides a development platform, whether a company wants to use HTML 5, native C, Java, or even Adobe AIR. Development tools exist -- not just for third-party developers, but also in-house corporate work -- and there's no need to go through the platform's vendor, as is true with Apple.
  • By adding graphics support used for gaming, RIM also acknowledged that its customers use a device for more than work and so cut away a possible reason to defect to Apple.
  • Even though it uses a new operating system, the use of the BlackBerry brand, combined with how the unit operates, reinforces that users won't lose anything and won't find their current smartphones obsolete.
RIM used its years of experience with corporate customers and deep understanding of their needs to do something that few companies accomplish: create a worth competitor to Apple product development and marketing on a first version, at least in RIM's market focus.