Is the Blackberry tablet a busted flush?

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Bang! Bang! Bang! If you’re wondering what the noise is, it’s the sound of BlackBerry hammering another nail into the PlayBook’s coffin. The troubled tablet isn’t actually dead yet, but BlackBerry is running around pulling out the IVs and switching off the machines: this week we discovered that the long-awaited update to Blackberry OS 10 isn’t coming to the PlayBook after all.

BlackBerry’s breaking a promise here - throughout 2012 and well into 2013 it avowed that its new operating system would come to its tablet as well as its smartphones - and it’s clear that BlackBerry couldn’t care less about its tablet: in April, CEO Thorsten Heins told Bloomberg that “in five years I don’t think there will be a reason to have a tablet any more”. He’s right, to a point: in five years there certainly won’t be a reason to have a BlackBerry tablet.

That’s a shame, because the PlayBook can be a great business device. Just ask Aviva, whose risk assessors can use a bespoke PlayBook app to eliminate a mountain of paperwork, to provide essential information whenever and wherever it’s required, and to get more done with less effort.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. By canning its plans to bring BlackBerry 10 to the PlayBook, BlackBerry isn’t just breaking its promise to upgrade the OS. It’s breaking a bigger promise, which is the promise of continuity.

Firms bought into the PlayBook because it was supposed to be a device for the long term, and BlackBerry has now changed its mind: it’s clear that tablets don’t factor in its future plans. The firm promises to continue supporting the PlayBook, but it also promised to bring BlackBerry OS 10 to it. You don’t need to be a cynic to wonder how long that support will really last. As Wired put it: “this effectively ends the life of the PlayBook”.

The reason for the PlayBook’s woes is simple enough: it was a rush job, a device whose brief wasn’t “make the best possible product for our enterprise customers” but “Aaagh! iPads! Quick! Make a tablet!”. As you may recall, when it first shipped it didn’t even have an email program or a calendar app, core features that it took RIM a year to add.

The PlayBook was a knee-jerk reaction, not a sensible long-term strategy, and that’s apparent now: according to BlackBerry, BB10 isn’t coming to the PlayBook because BlackBerry’s engineers can’t make it work well enough. That’s what happens when you don’t think long term, and that’s got to worry potential customers - not just with tablets, but with smartphones too.

In recent years BlackBerry has been doing an excellent impression of a company that’s been making up its strategy as it goes along, and that’s a problem for business customers. Such customers aren’t fickle like consumers are: they commit to platforms for the long term, investing not just in hardware but in support services and staff, training and app development.

Those costs tend to be front-loaded, and firms spend on the basis that they’ll make a return over many years. They don’t expect the rug to be pulled from underneath them in just two years, but that’s exactly what BlackBerry’s done with the PlayBook. Firms considering the latest BlackBerry smartphones might wonder whether the same might happen to those too. Apple, Microsoft and the many Android manufacturers must be delighted.