RIM’s PlayBook (and its failure to get U.S. carrier support)

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Research In Motion’s (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry PlayBook tablet was announced last year with much fanfare and finally went on sale in April. However, the device has so far utterly failed to make any inroads with U.S. carriers, a setback for RIM, which is using the PlayBook’s QNX operating system as the basis for its BBX smartphones.

RIM kicked off the year on the right foot, more or less, winning a commitment in January from Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) to launch a WiMAX version of the tablet--in the summer. Then in March RIM said it secured Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) as additional retail distribution partners. From there, things sputtered. 

By May, AT&T still had not approved the BlackBerry Bridge app that enables BlackBerry smartphones to connect the PlayBook to AT&T’s wireless network. And Verizon remained noncommittal on whether it would sell the device through its channels.  (AT&T eventually added support for Bridge in July)

Rumors began burbling up that Sprint’s support was getting wobbly. During RIM's fiscal first quarter, the company said it shipped 500,000 Wi-Fi enabled PlayBooks--Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) sold 9.3 million iPads during the same period. RIM promised in June that it would release 4G PlayBooks (LTE, WiMAX and HSPA+) sometime in the fall. Then the bottom fell out. Sprint said in August it would not launch a WiMAX PlayBook (it sells the Wi-Fi-only version) and Rim refocused its efforts on LTE PlayBooks. In September, RIM reported shipping just 200,000 PlayBooks, a massive miss from the 500,000 that analysts had expected, and a big drop from the 500,000 RIM shipped in the previous quarter.

As of November, RIM was mum on when the purported LTE PlayBooks were coming. Ultimately, it seems carriers were not willing to sign off on the tablet because of a weak market response and plentiful alternatives from Apple, HTC, LG, Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) and others--but not RIM.