TORONTO — Research in Motion (TSX:RIM) co-CEO Jim Balsillie says the long-awaited April 19 release of its tablet, the PlayBook, may be “the most significant development” for the Waterloo, Ont.-based tech giant since the release of its first BlackBerry in 1999.
But are consumers paying attention, and are the early adopters willing to glance up from their beloved iPads for even a second to give it a chance?
Buzz for the PlayBook was palpable when the tablet was first announced late last September and techies were generally impressed by the list of features RIM promised. But demanding online critics long ago grew weary of the months-long wait for the PlayBook and have blasted the company for drawing out the launch.
Some gave up on RIM entirely when Apple unveiled its iPad 2 at a splashy press event on March 2 and then released the product in the U.S. just nine days later. When the launch date and pricing for the PlayBook were finally announced last week it was done with a no muss, no fuss news release.
RIM will no doubt be banking on consumers like Aret Mazmanyan of Toronto, who sold his first-generation iPad — which he bought last year just days after it was released — and pre-ordered one of the RIM devices.
“I loved the iPad, then I used it for a while and realized it was just not meant for my needs compared to the PlayBook, which is a smaller (seven-inch) form factor. It was extremely heavy, it was very inconvenient to take around everywhere unless you had a small bag with you — it was just not ideal,” said Mazmanyan, who has a habit of buying the latest-and-greatest tech device and then selling it when something better comes along.
But while Mazmanyan signed up to be a Day 1 customer, he added that he wouldn’t be willing to line up for the new RIM tablet, unlike the hordes of Apple fanatics who have camped out overnight time and time again for the privilege of being among the first to buy the latest iPad or iPhone.
You can’t really blame RIM for failing to inspire the tech world like Apple has, because few other companies have a CEO that can cast a spell over consumers like Steve Jobs, said Raymond Pirouz, who lectures about new media marketing at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.
“To get in front of people with conviction and talk about a product as if it’s the saviour of the human race, that takes a lot of personal charisma to pull off — and to not have people laugh at you,” said Pirouz.
“That’s a whole approach to marketing that’s extremely rare, not many corporate executives can get up in front of people, inspire their customers and turn them into an audience. That’s a gift few CEOs possess.
“But at the same time, without products that are truly amazing to begin with, it’s difficult to tell that kind of story.”
The key for any new tablet to truly compete with the iPad, which created and continues to dominate the market, will be to not only live up to it, but surpass it, Pirouz said.
“If your offering doesn’t do anything that’s over and above what’s already out there it’s difficult to create passion in your audience when you have a ’me-too’ product,” he said.
“You have to go over and above the best in the category — at least 110 per cent— to get the attention of the consumer and once you have their attention, to convert them it has to really astonish them.”
RIM, which did not provide a spokesperson to comment, is attempting to differentiate its tablet by highlighting the iPad’s weaknesses and calling the PlayBook a “no compromise” device.
The PlayBook can handle Flash-enabled websites, RIM brags, and can smoothly play 1080p high-definition video. Its smaller screen also makes video and other graphics look better than on the iPad, RIM claims. And its smaller size makes the PlayBook easier to carry around everywhere; it even fits inside a jacket pocket.
But the fact that it’s taken RIM so long to bring its tablet to market hasn’t inspired confidence in the company, said David Soberman, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the federal government’s Canadian national chair in strategic marketing.
“Maybe not in the general public but certainly in the technologically knowledgeable public this actually creates some degree of uncertainty amongst customers as to, ’Well, you’re having problems now, are we actually confident you’re going to solve them?”’ said Soberman.
Even the faithful converted like Mazmanyan are worried by the delay and the fact that RIM still hasn’t divulged one critical detail about the PlayBook: battery life.
“Anyone who has a BlackBerry knows about the battery and how long it lasts so when RIM doesn’t disclose the battery life, which is one of their most important selling features, it kind of gives me worry,” Mazmanyan said.
Soberman figures RIM will start ramping up its marketing machine soon given that its promotional push for the PlayBook so far has been “so low key it’s almost not been there.” But he added that the strategy might reflect an initial focus on RIM’s loyal corporate market, with consumers being aggressively wooed in the second wave of sales.
During a conference call on Thursday, Balsillie said RIM will be sending demo units to its key enterprise customers in the weeks ahead and has got “fantastic” feedback, including interest from some corporations in placing orders in the five-figure range. When Apple launched the first iPad it sold a million units in a month.
But investors seemed to be less confident in RIM’s business, both in launching its tablet and selling its BlackBerry smartphones, after the company released its latest earnings report and projections for growth. RIM stock plummeted more than 10 per cent on Friday.
“Obviously if they believe they’re going to be targeting the existing BlackBerry customers as having a high potential for sales that might explain why they haven’t had a huge splash” with consumers, Soberman said.
“But we still don’t really know what they’re going to do in the next two or three weeks.”
Few expect that fanatical BlackBerry fans will show their devotion on April 19 like Apple’s loyal customers always do. There may not be much of a need to line up, since RIM took pre-orders and will be selling the PlayBook at more than 20,000 retail outlets across North America.
“I don’t think they’ll be lining up overnight,” said Pirouz, “I don’t think it’s going to inspire hours of wait time at all.”