Switched On: Played out

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On Played out

At the launch of the BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 -- the first hardware devices to run on the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 operating system -- there seemed to be a silver lining for the renamed company's struggling PlayBook tablet. Confirming speculation, CEO Thorsten Heins promised a cheering crowd that the PlayBook would receive an update to a new OS. This would open the door to signature features, a more polished user interface and a vastly expanded app library.

But something was amiss. The company had also announced that, to simplify app development, BlackBerry 10 would support two screen resolutions: the Z10's 1,280 x 768 and the Q10's 720 x 720. In contrast, the PlayBook resolution is 1,024 x 600. Late last month, the other shoe dropped as BlackBerry confirmed that the PlayBook would not receive the promised update, leaving it with an abandoned OS and marking the effective exit of BlackBerry from the tablet market.

The PlayBook served as a symbolic bridge between the old RIM, which often advocated replacing laptops with phones, and the new BlackBerry. The tablet's market entry was marked by the hubris of a company that was still in denial over Apple's tablet momentum. It was priced at parity with the iPad, but with a smaller display and far fewer apps. Much was made of the PlayBook's ability to run Flash and AIR applications, something it may have handled better than any other tablet on the market.

Indeed, despite a perfunctory industrial design, the PlayBook got a few things right. It was zippy from the start and had HDMI-out along with support for display mirroring, RIM also offered would-be QWERTY-phile BlackBerry phone customers a Bluetooth keyboard folio for the PlayBook, but it was in short supply despite its high price.

But the company took a big hit from consumer-focused reviewers who took the company to task for not including native email and calendaring. Then, RIM watched in horror as Amazon introduced its own 7-inch Kindle Fire at $200. The company responded with radical price cuts, but it was too late. Amazon's content ecosystem overpowered the PlayBook's, which tellingly didn't even have a Kindle app. And while Amazon, like RIM, might not have embraced much about Android, its app store was poised to support many more Android apps than the PlayBook ever did.

To the new BlackBerry, the PlayBook became a slow-selling albatross that couldn't keep up with BlackBerry 10. Heins may be accused of sour grapes for public proclamations that the tablet has no future. But his earlier, less sweeping statements help explain why the tablet business was simply a tough one for BlackBerry in that it lacked the strong integrated content support of a robust digital store. Even on the enterprise side, where BlackBerry had more relative sway, the ultimate arrival of Windows 8 tablets -- particularly smaller ones -- would have made for a rougher ride.

And so, now, the BlackBerry PlayBook will take its place in orphaned OS limbo alongside the HP TouchPad, which also saw its price dramatically slashed after its launch. Like the TouchPad, the inclusion of an office suite and PDF-reading capability will keep it useful for some time to come; the PlayBook's integrated video player is also adept at supporting multiple formats. Unlike HP, which slid back into the tablet market, BlackBerry needs to focus on its handsets. Should it regain its footing, though, one hopes the company -- which seems to have now found a balance between differentiation and supporting a broad array of apps -- would consult its new playbook in giving BlackBerry 10 a larger canvas.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.