RIM's Balsillie sees PlayBook as radical leap

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The iPad may have defined the game, but Jim Balsillie is convinced the BlackBerry PlayBook will transform it.

Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie discusses the new BlackBerry PlayBook device during an interview with Reuters in New York September 24, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Balsillie, RIM’s tech-minded co-CEO, says the PlayBook and the QNX architecture powering it mark the arrival of the first fully functioning Internet experience in a mobile package. In short, RIM’s device is a “game changer,” he says.

RIM has struggled in recent years to be considered a visionary and innovative force worthy of comparison to Apple and its consumer-friendly iPhone and iPad tablet.

On Monday, RIM opened an attack two years in the making when it unveiled its own tablet at a developers’ conference in San Francisco.

While critics may see RIM’s tablet as just one more late arrival in a suddenly congested market that hardly existed before Apple’s entry burst on the scene in April, Balsillie begs to differ.

“We are bringing mobility to the Web, not asking the Web to reformat for mobility,” Balsillie told Reuters in a briefing ahead of PlayBook’s introduction. “I can’t think of anything more architecturally game-changing that we’ve done, other than the launch of the original BlackBerry.”

The PlayBook, at least initially, will only be able to access a cellular network by linking to a BlackBerry phone, lessening its allure for carriers, but appealing to users wary of another monthly service fee.

Its two cameras promise video-conferencing, as long as it is in range of a WiFi signal or Bluetooth-linked to a BlackBerry phone. Interestingly for enterprises, it mirrors and enlarges the workspace for applications but erases corporate data once that link is broken.

“There’s no data residing on it, so the CIO (chief information officer) is fine,” Balsillie said.

“This is blessed a thousand times over,” he said, tapped his BlackBerry Torch. “But don’t open up a hole in it.”


Balsillie, a Canadian known for his passion for hockey, seems at ease talking technical specifications. Lacing his narrative with jargon and acronyms, Balsillie is the antithesis of marketing genius Steve Jobs, who whips up Apple fans into buying frenzies for new devices.

His enthusiasm for engineering is magnified by QNX co-founder Dan Dodge, who interrupts his new boss during an interview in New York City’s Times Square to stress the strengths of the real-time operating system his company developed.

RIM acquired QNX Software Systems earlier this year.

QNX software is already embedded in air traffic control systems, surgical equipment, nuclear power plants, infotainment systems and casino gaming terminals.

“We’ve designed from day one to maximize, you throw a second core in, things will get faster. You throw a third core, faster again. It’s built into the architecture,” Dodge said.

The QNX kernel and architecture, which runs much of the Internet’s plumbing, is fully compliant with older source code such as Adobe Flash software that animates websites, delivers video and offers interactivity, as well as the nascent HTML 5 standard that may eventually replace it.

In a dig at Apple, which does not support Flash on its mobile devices due to its perceived technical drawbacks, Balsillie asks rhetorically: “What’s going to happen when we show that the performance is superior?”

“People say it’s about a couple of hundred thousand apps and we say, how about 10 million Flash apps. It’s an interesting new dialogue.”

Balsillie theatrically convulsed at the suggestion corporations are abandoning BlackBerrys and allowing their employees to access corporate systems on iPhones.


In recent iterations of the BlackBerry, long favored by executives for its push email and security, RIM has sought a piece of the growing global mass market of consumers who’ve taken to smartphones for their social-networking, web-browsing and video-viewing abilities.

Mobile data usage is expected to double every year until at least 2014, according to a Cisco white paper, with video ballooning to make up two-thirds of the 3.6 billion gigabytes that will be transferred per month globally by then.

A chunk of that growth will come from corporate video conferencing, and Balsillie is eager to honor RIM’s roots even as it eyes more sales in emerging markets and to consumers.

“We’re a VPN (virtual private network) with a bunch of interfaces and efficient presentation, that’s our game,” he said. “This is just a natural extension to it in a world that’s gone super-fast to Web and media.”

Still, momentum is with others, especially Apple and Google, whose Android operating system has been taken up by a string of handset makers.

That pair are eyeing up mobile advertising revenue powered by tight control over customer data, lining those companies up for confrontation with content providers and carriers.


Balsillie says RIM is more interested in enabling rather than competing with publishers, advertisers and carriers seeking advantage in the still-nascent tablet market.

RIM was recently rumored to be seeking to buy its own mobile advertising company, but Balsillie dismisses the idea as not befitting RIM’s character.

“Is the platform for constructive engagement of web players and publishers and carriers, or is it a tool for disintermediation? That’s a strategic call and our strategy has been constructive alignment.”

“I think they are ways to thoughtfully play in that,” he said, noting RIM’s e-commerce offering includes carrier and credit card billing. “But it’s not going to be from compelling people you must use this ad service, you must use this e-commerce service, you must reformat.”

Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Galloway