The Future of The PlayBook
Time flies: It has already been a year and three months since the PlayBook launched, and I have written about 30 PlayBook apps.
Back in the fall of 2011, even though I was focused mostly on PlayBook development, I had also ported one of my apps to iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. It was a great learning experience, and I considered writing more apps for those other platforms. But in December, when iTunes Sync sales went through the roof, it ended up changing the flavor of my efforts.
Firstly, I was spending more than half of my app development time answering support emails. Secondly, I needed to spend time fixing bugs that users reported. That left a pretty small chunk of time left for doing new things.
The other big effect was shifting my focus solely to PlayBook. Not that I would be opposed to developing apps for other platforms, but with so much revenue coming from PlayBook, it was natural to keep my focus there.
And finally, my app development time became somewhat less about having fun and more about trying to keep the income coming in. Don't get me wrong, I've still been having fun, but there has been a dose of stress and anxiety that has come along with the money.
And so here I am in July 2012. Amazingly the revenue rate of my apps is still about $13,000 a month. My rate of new development is very low, and the time that I do have is spread between support, BB10 learning, and a little bit of PlayBook development. As I phase out my PlayBook development for BB10 learning, it's interesting to take a moment to think about where the PlayBook is at, and what lay ahead.
I'm usually an optimist about these things. A year ago, even though I agreed with everyone that the PlayBook had a difficult road ahead, I wasn't "worried". Maybe I should have been, but I was optimistic.
These days I question a bit more what lay ahead for the PlayBook. What has caused the shift?
I think an example of that would be talking to people I saw with PlayBooks in airports on my way down to BB10 Jam in May. Everyone basically said the same thing: "Oh, it's ok. I wish I had an iPad, it's way better. But the price was right". That reaction makes sense. It seems as though many PlayBook owners are wanna-be iPad owners, but since the PlayBook is being sold at a loss, they went with the PlayBook to save a few hundred dollars.
As a PlayBook fan, I'll be honest: I don't like hearing that. What I'd like to hear is, "Yeah, the hardware is great, I like the 7" form factor, and it's way cheaper than the iPad". A response like that would come across as more encouraging, rather than "Oh, it's ok. I wish I had an iPad".
The second discouragement are sales numbers. I think there are roughly 1.3 million PlayBooks out there, with something like 200,000 being sold every quarter. That's not terrible, but for a tablet that's being sold at a loss, it's pretty discouraging.
What that all makes me wonder is where the future business case is for the tablet. I'm not talking in the past tense: I think making the PlayBook was a fantastic way for RIM to build on QNX and create a developer community as it shifted its phones to QNX. But now that BB10 is coming down the pipe, where does that leave the PlayBook? For a company that wants to minimize costs, isn't it a tough sell to keep selling the PlayBook at a loss? And we all know that if RIM raises the price above cost, that's not going to improve sales numbers.
Certainly for BlackBerry owners, it's nice to have a BlackBerry tablet, so one can make the argument that the future roll of the PlayBook is to augment the experience of BlackBerry phone customers, not to directly compete with the likes of iPad. That future makes more sense to me. And as Thorsten has said many times, RIM is building a platform, not a device. Ideally, the PlayBook is just one more device that can harness the rich platform they're building. And cars another. From that perspective, it's not critical that PlayBook be a cash cow, so long as their core phone business is healthy.
I suppose one optimistic hope for PlayBook is that if customers go crazy for BB10, and the PlayBook can build on the BB10 experience, you might sell significantly more PlayBooks and the price constraints might not be so severe.
We'll have to wait and see. But for now, I'll be honest, I'm anxious about what lay ahead for my favorite tablet.