Eighteen months after unveiling its entry into the highly contentious tablet wars, Research In Motion has barely made a dent in the market. In its second-quarter earnings report last week, the Waterloo, Ontario-based BlackBerry manufacturer said it moved just 130,000 PlayBook tablets in the quarter.
The reigning king of the market, Apple, shipped more than 17 million iPads in the quarter, nearly double the 9.25 million of the same quarter in 2011, while distant-second Samsung shipped 2.3 million of its various sized Galaxy Tabs, more than double its 1.10 million shipments for the first quarter, according to research by The Wall Street Journal.
RIM's output was also dwarfed by smaller players such as Asus and Acer, and by Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet.
The PlayBook, first released in April 2011, is based on the QNX operating system RIM acquired in 2010, and won mixed reviews, earning cheers for multitasking and security controls but jeers for its lack of apps or even native e-mail capability. While critics didn't know what to make of its 7-inch display size at first, that form factor has become more common with Samsung's smaller Galaxy Tab and other devices like the Kindle Fire and Google's Nexus 7. Apple is expected to enter the 7-inch market with an iPad mini soon.
"RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet has suffered from an identity crisis since its introduction," Jeff Orr, mobile devices senior practice director at ABI Research, told us.
"Technically, the device was ahead of its time and still remains the only commercially available tablet capable of multitasking applications -- running concurrently; not switching)."
But Orr said RIM took a wrong turn in its strategy of making the PlayBook essentially obsolete to those who don't also have a BlackBerry smartphone with associated services.
"This automatically limited the potential audience of the tablet to an installed base of handsets," Orr said. "It could never appeal to the general audiences that seek value from the computing power of a portable PC with a form-factor larger than a smartphone. As a result, its total available market has remained small compared to other tablet vendors."
Orr added that a version of the PlayBook compatible with 4G, long-term evolution high-speed data for Canadian customers is a strong step forward but arguably too little, too late compared with what the competition is up to. And its precarious financial situation as it struggles to regain market share lost to Apple and Android-based devices doesn't help, either.
"RIM's struggles through restructuring and developing its BlackBerry OS 10 platform for next-generation handsets have obviously been a distraction for how to advance the tablet portfolio," Orr said. "The good news is that BB10 is built from an OS platform proven by BlackBerry PlayBook and the [feedback] from both business and consumer tablet audiences will help yield a more robust handset solution; however, the future of non-handset products from RIM remains unclear."
RIM released a 2.1 update to the PlayBook's software Wednesday, providing long-awaited fixes for the tablet. Those include e-mail enhancements, better Android app support, the ability to print via Wi-Fi, and portrait orientation for calendar, contacts and messages.