Last week, HP announced it would discontinue the TouchPad and all webOS-based products. This was a dramatic reversal in strategy; just a few months ago (in March), I attended HP’s analyst event, during which HP CEO Leo Apotheker presented webOS as a central tenet of HP’s consumer product strategy and said the TouchPad was “the first of hundreds” of devices that would be running webOS, including printers and PCs.
HP’s product strategy reversal begs the question, what will happen to the other iPad challengers? As we’ve said before, the high prices, flawed channel, and underdeveloped app ecosystem make Android tablet prospects look dim until Amazon enters the market. Windows 8 tablets have a chance, but not until next year at the earliest. That leaves RIM, a competitor that, like HP, is trying to do the very hard thing of launching its own platform (QNX) along with its own hardware (the BlackBerry PlayBook). On Friday I was quoted in a story in USA Today on HP’s decision to discontinue its TouchPad in which I said, “I won't be surprised to see RIM abandon the tablet market.” That remark was misleading; RIM has never indicated any intent to exit the tablet market or scale down investment in the PlayBook. Today I spoke with Robert Crow, VP of industry and government relations for RIM, who emphasized the strategic importance of QNX and the PlayBook for RIM. “This is our platform, and this is our future,” said Crow, referring to the QNX platform generally and PlayBook device specifically. “We stand 100% behind it,” he said.
I believe RIM’s assurances that it plans to stay in the market. But continued commitment is no guarantee of success. Product strategists at RIM have a steep climb ahead of them. The PlayBook lacks the content ecosystem that Apple and Amazon tablets have, and it doesn’t work with as broad a range of consumer and enterprise software as Windows 8 tablets will. RIM reported shipping only 500,000 PlayBooks in its first quarter on the market, and competition won’t get any easier. It could be that the PlayBook will find a home in specific vertical markets like government, where the PlayBook is the only tablet certified for use. But RIM product strategists may not have unlimited time and resources to feel around for a PlayBook product strategy. Although their commitment remains strong today, there may come a day when their options resemble HP’s. Tablets have allure, but they can also be a money pit. RIM’s product strategists may eventually find a better return investing in other strategic initiatives, such as bringing QNX smartphones to market and continuing to serve their enterprise (BES) business.