It would take a serious bit of news to make me me seriously question the PlayBook's viability as a tablet for enterprises. But I just got that news today.
Having scored some hands-on time with the PlayBook at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week, I was genuinely impressed overall with the hardware and the new QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS. That's even though I do have some reservations about the need to connect to a RIM smartphone to create a "BlackBerry Bridge" for secure access to enterprise e-mail, calendar, contacts and more. (Check out a video demo of the BlackBerry Bridge in action.)
So what's the big problem for enterprises that I learned about today? If you're looking to employ the PlayBook along with custom business applications, RIM's tablet does not offer a secure channel back to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) Mobile Data Service (MDS)--unless you're connected to a corporate VPN via Wi-Fi. (The BlackBerry MDS is a component of BES that lets administrators add, manage and secure BlackBerry applications.)
What does that mean?
In short: While enterprise PlayBook users should be able to securely download and view corporate data via business applications, they'll be unable to send any data back to backend systems via RIM's tablet without a VPN connection via a Wi-Fi network.
In other words, when it comes to enterprise apps that access corporate systems--think: ERP, CRM, etc--the initial version of the PlayBook tablet will be nothing more than a 7-inch display for viewing data, unless you have access to a Wi-Fi network and VPN.
So that field technician or sales rep out in the field will be able to send email and view scheduling or inventory information via the PlayBook tablet, but he'll still have to use his BlackBerry smartphone to enter new information into those systems.
"The BlackBerry Bridge is currently only for PIM applications," says Ryan Bidan, RIM's senior PlayBook product manager.
The BlackBerry Bridge currently provides secure access to corporate mail, calendar, contacts and tasks, but it doesn't offer a secure channel back to BES MDS without Wi-Fi and a VPN.
And that's simply not a good thing for a tablet that's largely targeting business users.
My BES administrator source who brought this gaping PlayBook hole to my attention (and who wishes to remain anonymous due to an ongoing relationship with RIM) told me he's extremely disappointed.
"From my point of view, PlayBook is totally useless for [the] enterprise," the source said. "Geez, RIM, what were you thinking?"
This is a surprising omission on RIM's part, and I'm also disappointed in RIM and the PlayBook because of it, though I do believe RIM will address this issue in future versions of the PlayBook. Bidan wouldn't say for sure if the next generation PlayBook, or even the WiMax version announced by Sprint last week, will suffer the same problem. But he did stress that the current PlayBook is only RIM's first foray in the tablet space, and the product is expected to evolve rapidly.
Many analysts and pundits have criticized the company over the past week, due to the PlayBook's need to connect to the BlackBerry Bridge for access to enterprise mail and other resources.
Personally, I've held back any criticisms I have, because I want to see the Bridge in action some more before condemning it. But the Bridge requirement, combined with the fact that the BES does not offer any sort of secure channel back to the BES MDS without VPN and Wi-Fi, honestly has me shaking my head a bit.