BlackBerry PlayBook Gives RIM a Tablet Win

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I hate to rain on the Research In Motion (RIMM) doomsayer parade, but at least for one small-business product, the company is making progress.

Earlier this year, the beleaguered Canadian portable device giant released, to almost universal disdain, the BlackBerry PlayBook (16GB version is $500). Most users -- myself included -- found the 9-inch-diagonal overall, multitasking tablet computer to be fast and attractive to look at but marred by an almost incomprehensible list of business blunders. The unit was only available via Best Buy ( BBY) -- hardly a haven of pricing and service for small-business customers. The original PlayBook was not supported by anything close to serious business-ready apps. And almost unbelievably, native support for BlackBerry's core tried-and-true email service was not supported on the tablet. PlayBook users had to -- get ready for this -- run an app called BlackBerry Bridge that connected wirelessly, then redisplayed, a separate RIM email feed.

While far from perfect, the BlackBerry PlayBook is significantly better than its predecessor and now a real argument for a BlackBerry-oriented small-business tablet.

I still can't believe a product like this actually made it to market.

Well, guess what? The company took its licks and slowly but surely fixed most of the dings. It released a series of updates that address the glaring issues -- for small businesses anyway -- with the PlayBook.

And while this tablet is far from perfect, there is now a real argument for a BlackBerry-oriented small-business tablet:

1. Buying is no longer an act of blind faith.
Happily, you can now get a PlayBook not just at Best Buy and through the mail from RIM, but at any one of a number of small-biz-friendly retail channels: Office Depot ( ODP), RadioShack ( RSH), Sprint ( S) and Staples ( SPLS) all sell it; so you can be confident that when you lay down your $500, you are going to get at least some service for your money.

2. Business app support has improved.
I'll be brief: The Blackberry App World is no Apple ( AAPL) iTunes App Store or Google ( GOOG) Android Market. But RIM's app support for business software is no longer the bare bones, shut-up-and-be-happy-with-what-we-give-you service it was just a few months ago.

The latest update of the PlayBook OS now has three improved work apps: Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go, all devilishly effective at manipulating business documents on small screens. The touch-typing interface is fast, and the multitasking-friendly environment makes doing work easy. Considering that most of us now carry our tablets with our laptops, the PlayBook is a handy second screen.

Be warned: There are plenty of crappy apps still to be had in BlackBerry world, so trial and error is still the order of app day. But with a bit of judicious downloading, the PlayBook can be outfitted with reasonable business software.

3. Real work email solutions.
Though users are still hampered by a lack of native email support on the device, RIM has made connecting to cloud-based email services relatively painless. Updates to the OS come with links to Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! ( YHOO) Mail and AOL ( AOL) installed. And considering the power of the RIM browser, really any Web-based client can be made to work. For the sophisticated traveler -- that is, one with a cell-based Wi-Fi hotspot -- this sort of Web-based work email can work.

Now, I am not saying that the PlayBook is going to become an email powerhouse, or that it can replace a smartphone or your existing BlackBerry. But with a mobile Web connection and some basic gadget jujitsu, the PlayBook can be a surprisingly handy way to stay in touch with the office.

Bottom line
Are there still issues with the PlayBook? Absolutely. Its fancy new video conferencing service, for example, only works properly with other PlayBook users. Making it effectively useless compared with just about any Web-based video conferencing service. And the PlayBook is downright pricey when compared with other tablets.

But even factoring those issues in, the gleeful investor dance of death around RIM is not taking into account that the company now provides meaningful products to small businesses.

Despite my own earlier criticism, I'm willing to say the PlayBook is one of them.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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