RIM launches PlayBook, fans don't play along

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Research In Motion's PlayBook tablet computer launched in almost empty stores on Tuesday, unable to whip up the frenzy that accompanies the debut of anything from rival Apple.

At an Office Depot in Midtown New York, just three PlayBooks left the shelves in the 20 minutes after the store opened, while not a soul stirred outside a nearby Staples.

"It's going to be a tough sell to the consumer," BGC Partner analyst Colin Gillis said of the PlayBook, a sleek but flawed gadget that doesn't yet offer the secure email that is the trademark of RIM's ubiquitous BlackBerry.

"It's going to be right next to an iPad at the same price point. The iPad is going to look much bigger, it has an entire ecosystem around it."

The PlayBook launch was a stark contrast to the frenzy when Apple launched its iPad 2 a month ago and consumers lined up overnight for a first glimpse of the gadget.

The stakes could not be higher for Canada's RIM, whose security-focused BlackBerry once reigned supreme in financial, corporate and government circles.

The company has struggled to compete since Apple's iPhone and a slew of devices running Google's Android entered the smartphone fray, stealing precious market share.

RIM shares were down 2 percent at $53.88 on the Nasdaq.

Poor reviews

Early reviews have panned the WiFi-only PlayBook for lacking email and organizer applications -- the gadget needs a BlackBerry to access those -- and key carrier AT&T said it will not support the BlackBerry Bridge function that lets the PlayBook mirror a BlackBerry smartphone.

AT&T is the second largest carrier in the United States, and the absence of the BlackBerry Bridge could be a major headache for RIM.

But retailers say solid pre-orders suggest there will be pent-up demand for a capable alternative to the iPad.

"Based on those numbers coming in, we expect it to be successful," said Steve Coffin, operations manager at a Future Shop big box store near Toronto's financial district.

"When you know you've got a guaranteed copy, people are coming in on their way to work. We expect to have people coming in on their lunch hour."

Some 20,000 stores across the United States and Canada were to stock the PlayBook from the launch, and the tablet -- priced to match the iPad -- will also be sold directly to businesses.

Apple, which established the tablet market a year ago, sold almost 15 million iPads in 2010; RIM is expected to move 3 million PlayBooks in a similar window in 2011, according to 18 analysts polled by Reuters.

"It's not going to be in the same league as the iPad," said Al Hilwa, a Seattle-based analyst at IDC. "The question is will it sell more than the Xoom but less than the Galaxy," he added, referring to Android-based tablets from Motorola Mobility and Samsung.

Underscoring the low-key launch, Staples Canada ditched plans to open at midnight in favor of a 7 a.m. start.

While a gaggle of Future Shop sales staff waited for customers, the muted PlayBook display was overshadowed by more prominent displays that included Apple's gleaming white logo.

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