LAS VEGAS Corporate interest in Research in Motion's new tablet was "massive," the company said, as it announced plans to launch a 4G version of the device this summer with Sprint Nextel.
RIM for the first time on Wednesday provided a hands-on demonstration of the PlayBook, a seven-inch touchscreen tablet that will go head-to-head with Apple's iPad when the Wi-Fi-only version ships, likely in March.
"In large companies, they're talking deployment in the tens of thousands, right off the bat," said Jeff McDowell, senior vice president of enterprise and platform marketing for RIM.
He said corporations are viewing the PlayBook as a tool as essential to employees as a phone or a PC. "It's not something that they want to trickle in."
RIM's tablet is perhaps the most anticipated iPad rival in a sea of new competitors bent on challenging Apple and stealing a piece of a fast-growing market expected to top 50 million units next year.
McDowell said RIM decided to go with Sprint for its first high-speed wireless compatible tablet because it has most "ubiquitous 4G network at this point."
The choice of No. 3 U.S. mobile service Sprint as RIM's first carrier was an interesting one given that Sprint uses a high-speed wireless technology that is incompatible with networks being built by the top two U.S. mobile operators.
The PlayBook -- which sports a fast dual-core processor -- performed smoothly as it went through its paces, loading websites and applications quickly and playing Flash-based videos on the Internet with ease.
The PlayBook weighs less than one pound (400 grams) and is less than 10 millimeters thick, with a thin rubber coating.
Its software allows for multi-tasking and features a rotating "carousel" that shows all the programs that the device is running. A simple finger swipe up brings up the home screen, while a swipe out closes programs.
There has been plenty of debate in recent weeks about the PlayBook's battery life, a key point of competition in the tablet market. The 10-inch iPad boasts more than 10 hours of battery life.
McDowell said the PlayBook's battery will last as long or longer than other 7-inch tablets, although he declined to be more specific.
He said concerns about Flash programs draining battery life were "absurd generalizations." Apple has derided Flash as a battery hogging technology, and the iPad does not support the widely-used multimedia software.
TABLET WARS BEGIN
RIM is betting that its reputation for security and reliability will make the PlayBook a favorite in corporate IT departments.
But Apple CEO Steve Jobs has singled out the PlayBook for criticism, saying that seven-inch tablets will be "dead on arrival" when they hit the market.
McDowell said the PlayBook will launch with a library featuring "thousands" of apps available for download. When asked, he said RIM is looking at different screen sizes for the PlayBook, but declined to comment further.
The company has previously said it would sell the PlayBook for "under $500" but has not yet provided a specific price tag. The iPad starts at $499.
Analysts, on average, forecast RIM will sell fewer than 4 million PlayBooks in the 12 months after its launch.
Apple has sold more than 7 million iPads since launching the device in April and analysts predict that the company sold as many as 6 million in the December quarter.
RIM has plenty riding on the PlayBook. Once a darling of Wall Street, the company is having a hard time convincing investors that it is well-positioned to combat Apple and Google in the booming market for smartphones and tablets.
Shares in RIM spiked sharply in heavy volume in the last hour of Nasdaq trade to end the session 4.8 percent higher at $61.92. RIM's Toronto Stock Exchange-listed shares closed 4.4 percent higher at C$61.70.