BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd.'s (RIMM) PlayBook tablet won't be available until the first quarter of 2011, but many companies are already considering how to deploy it and plan to begin testing the device soon.
"I actually got my hands on the first unit today, and will get demo devices in December," said Dave Codack, vice president of Employee Technology and Network Services at TD Bank Financial Group.
Candidates for a PlayBook at TD include executives, knowledge workers who use basic productivity applications like Microsoft Word, mortgage specialists who deal directly with customers and contact-center employees who use basic applications to service customers, Codack said.
It's too soon to say how many PlayBooks TD will deploy, but a key factor will be the extent to which it can supplant laptops, he said. If it can serve as a replacement, TD could end up providing PlayBooks to as many as 10%-15% of its 75,000 employees, he said. If not, it will have a "minimal footprint," he said.
The PlayBook is one of the more important product launches in RIM's 26-year history. A pioneer in the smartphone market, the Waterloo, Ontario firm is facing fierce competition from Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone juggernaut and a slew of devices running on Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android operating system. The rival devices are making inroads in the corporate-smartphone market, which the BlackBerry has traditionally dominated.
RIM is fighting back, recently launching a new Blackberry operating system and overhauling its support for third-party-application developers. The company unveiled the PlayBook in September to compete in the tablet-computer market and defend its turf in the corporate market. A successful launch could restore RIM's cachet and prop up flagging North American sales. A flop could mean further erosion in the corporate market and accelerate the perception of RIM as an also-ran.
RIM co-Chief Executive Jim Balsillie said last week that the PlayBook will sell for less than US$500. The iPad starts at US$499.
Sun Life Financial Inc.'s (SLF) Tom Reid said he anticipates ordering as many as 1,000 PlayBooks initially. Reid, senior vice president of Group Retirement Services at Sun Life, said the devices will be used to facilitate enrollment in retirement savings plans managed by the insurance provider.
Enrollment in those plans have traditionally involved paper forms that people often forget to fill out, he said. By using the PlayBook and a custom-designed application, people can enroll on the spot, increasing sign-up rates, he said. Sun Life is evaluating other ways to deploy the PlayBook, including for enrollment in other plans managed by the company or a sales-team tool, he said.
Security was a critical factor in choosing the PlayBook, Reid said. "It's got 128-bit encryption, and when you're thinking about security of our members' personal information, that had to be our No. 1 priority," he said.
Sun Life hasn't ordered the PlayBook yet, but a purchase order is likely since the company spent a lot of time and money developing its application for the device. "When the device is ready to ship, then we'll negotiate--as with any supplier--the terms under which we'll purchase them," he said.
Price is one reason Michael Wright is interested in the PlayBook. Wright, chief technology officer for the Denver International Airport, said he also likes the device's front and rear cameras for video conferencing. Its Flash capability will make for a superior Web-browsing experience, and obviate the need to pay developers to fit an application onto a device that doesn't support Flash, he said. "And we like the price point," he said.
The Denver airport will use the PlayBook to help enhance security operations, snow operations and for in-the-field maintenance, Wright said. He said he envisions deploying up to 300 tablets for the airport's 1,100 employees. Some of these will be iPads, he said, though he "hasn't given much thought" yet to how each device will be deployed.
TD's Codack said the company supports iPads but the device is not "industrial grade" from a corporate perspective. "There's a whole bunch of infrastructure required to manage (large-scale-device deployments) and...the iPad doesn't have that," he said.
By contrast, RIM's BlackBerry smartphone was built from the ground up as an enterprise product, Codack said. It allows companies a high degree of control over how the device is used and managed, and provides tight security, which is paramount for corporations, he said. "If it has the look and feel of an iPad with the kind of infrastructure that RIM provides, I think that's going to be appealing," he said.
A list of some companies/organizations evaluating the PlayBook:
TD Bank Financial Group
Sun Life Financial
ING Direct Canada
Denver International Airport
Colorado Department of Corrections
Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, LLP
Lake Travis Independent School District, Austin, Texas
-By Stuart Weinberg; Dow Jones Newswires; 416-306-2026; email@example.com