RIM's Lessard on the PlayBook, the enterprise market and QNX

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with Tyler Lessard, RIM's vice president of global alliances and developer relationswith Tyler Lessard, RIM's vice president of global alliances and developer relations

Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) is about to introduce its new tablet, the PlayBook, which runs on software from QNX. The company will release a version of the gadget for Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) WiMAX network this summer. Additionally, despite lagging in global smartphone market share in the third quarter, RIM shipped 14.2 million BlackBerry smartphones in its latest quarter. Recently, FierceWireless Editor Phil Goldstein chatted with Tyler Lessard, RIM's vice president of global alliances and developer relations, about the PlayBook, the changing nature of the smartphones in the enterprise market and a transition to QNX software for RIM's smartphones. An edited version follows:

FierceWireless: This is shaping up to be the year of the tablet. What will the PlayBook offer that other tablets can't? And is it more focused on enterprise users, or is there crossover with consumers?

Lessard: I think what we're most excited about with PlayBook is we're really aiming to bring the best experience across the board, altogether with a simple product and no compromises, and a product that is ready for high-end personal consumer use, but also ready for business use out of the box, for pro-sumers as well as enterprise professionals who are connecting back to their enterprises servers. There are a number of things about it; certainly what we saw in performance of the product with the dual-core processor and true multitasking gives you a really compelling user experience. And, from an end-user perspective, the ability to run various multimedia sessions simultaneously and then get applications, we believe is a really compelling user experience, whether you're a business professional or a consumer.

Incrementally to that, is of course the business use case of being able to have it enterprise ready, and it supports our BlackBerry Enterprise Server and enterprise environment. We built it in a way that it pairs with your BlackBerry via BlackBerry Bridge technology so you can view your emails and calendar and contacts on the PlayBook, but keep them stored on your BlackBerry device, which is something that our enterprise customers are very favorable about, that they don't need to manage data on yet another device. They already have secured their BlackBerry smartphones and now the PlayBook gives you that full experience of holding a document and whatnot but without having to store the data locally on an additional device, and present another security risk. So I think that's one piece. There are other pieces to our enterprise-ready story, but that notion of no compromise in the enterprise, and it comes ready to go, secured and accredited, is a very important piece for us.

FierceWireless: Why the decision to go with Sprint at this point and WiMAX over LTE?     

Lessard: At the end of the day we'll continue to invest in many different products and partnerships. We'll be working with carriers all around the world. We're really excited to be working with Sprint. They have a really mature WiMAX 4G network rollout. They've been a leader in 4G in North America, and they've been a very strong partner of ours. I think we have the ability to work with all carriers around the world and different technologies. And the choice to partner with Sprint initially, there are a lot of different business reasons, but what we were really excited about was Sprint's interest and excitement in coming to the table and working with us on a product like that. A lot of what we do is based on the interest we see from the carrier and the things they bring to the table. It's great to see, and we're really excited about that, but again that will be just one step down a much longer path to introduce devices.

FierceWireless: With more iPhones and Android phones being allowed by employers, how does RIM stay relevant in the enterprise? And is it important to?

Lessard: The enterprise is absolutely important and it's a critical part of our business, and it will always be. We continue to focus on it very much--as much, if not more, frankly, than the consumer side. I think there are a couple of things happening. One, while enterprises are opening to allow their employees to bring certain devices in, there are still growing trends of enterprises proactively deploying devices out to their employees. I think what you're seeing is the size of the pie, if you will, of enterprise users with smartphones is growing so much. They're not slowing down in terms of rolling out managed devices to their employees, but they're also opening up and letting people bring in personal devices. It's iPhone, Android, other devices and BlackBerrys. We certainly see that trend of people buying a BlackBerry and bringing it into the office as much as other devices. But we are focusing on how we can help our enterprise customers manage that sort of environment, because what we don't want to see happen is enterprises get to the point where they're not getting the value out of the smartphones that they could because of allowing it to go to a personal environment.

So we want to make sure they're rolling BlackBerrys out to their employees or letting people come in with them, that they can take advantages of all of the value that's there and roll out corporate applications to them and manage the enterprise part of it but leave the personal side of it separate. We recently brought to market BlackBerry Balance, which provides new features for our enterprise software and our handheld software that enables the data to be managed separately. And IT can set policies to stop data from being shared across the corporate and personal usage; it allows people to use BlackBerrys in a more personal setting while not compromising their enterprise data, whether they're rolling it out or having it be brought in. All of that being said, the enterprise market remains very, very relevant and hugely critical for us, and will continue to be. There are trends around opening it up to incoming devices, but we still see as much as ever enterprises proactively that are going to be managed for many parts of their organizations. And we want to make sure we can manage both.                  

FierceWireless: BlackBerry App World hasn't taken off in the way the Android Market has. Do you think the number of apps and diversity of apps is good barometer of the health of a smartphone ecosystem? If not, what is?

Lessard: It's a great question. I don't think anybody has the right answer at the end of the day. I think what we see is there is a lot of factors. It's great to see developers pumping out applications, and it's an indicator of some things, but by no means do we view that as the true sort of barometer of what's going on out there. We have a very large and productive developer community doing apps through App World as well as distributing applications directly into enterprises. I think that's one reason why you see the number of apps in the store as sometimes a poor estimation of the amount of activity going on. So there are a lot of applications out there that are being deployed by enterprises that are being distributed directly that aren't even in BlackBerry App World. That being said, our focus has really been on ensuring we have the right apps that people really are looking for. Today we have 17,000 apps in the store. It's an incredible number of applications at the end of the day. And what we're seeing is over 2 millions apps downloaded every day from our storefront. And those sorts of numbers we believe are very, very good, and also represent that developers are being successful on BlackBerry when you do the math of 17,000 apps and 2 million downloads a day, the usage on apps is very, very healthy. We're seeing great progress by our developer community, and every month we're growing rapidly the number of apps. It's grown by 5,000 in the last couple of months.

FierceWireless: Does RIM have any plans to join the Wholesale Applications Community?

Lessard: I don't think there's anything we've announced specific to it. We have announced in the past our support, and we do continue to support many of these endeavors. We announced our support for the Joint Innovation Lab (which merged with WAC last July). We're very supportive of those kinds of initiatives and we work closely with carriers to help foster those ecosystems. I'm excited to see what we can do in that space and working with them, but we'll see what happens this year as things get formalized.  

FierceWireless: RIM has talked in the past about eventually transitioning its smartphones to the QNX software that powers the PlayBook. Is there any timeframe for that and how would such a transition work?

Lessard: There's no timeline specific to that. What we've been fairly clear on in our focus with the tablet OS has been to bring it as a no compromise, high performance platform as the future of mobile computing. So today, it will be running on dual-core Gigahertz processor with a GPU [graphics processor unit] product--the PlayBook. As you look at the smartphone side, our focus is on ensuring that we're not compromising on the experience for the sake of running it on different hardware. Over time, we all know we'll see the smartphones continue to evolve with dual-core processors and high-end hardware. And so we're going to continue to evaluate the performance that we can get on the platform in various form factors and be smart about when certain things happen. But we really want to focus on providing the best performance experience for end-users and not compromising on that. What we've been able to accomplish with [Adobe] Flash and Air and so on with the PlayBook is best in class, and it's going to be a great experience for consumers, and we really want to make sure we don't back-step from that and offer a degraded experience because hardware is not ready or the performance isn't there. So we'll see how things evolve.