Arik Hesseldahl

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A Curious, Confusing Launch Party for RIM’s PlayBook

The following exchange between me and a person I met randomly took place last night at Research In Motion’s New York launch party for the PlayBook.

“Who’s the guy everyone’s taking pictures of?”

“What?” I answered. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.

“Who’s that guy over there? Everyone is taking his picture.”

“Oh, that’s Mike Lazaridis. He invented the BlackBerry,” I said.

It seemed a strange kind of question, given that it was RIM’s launch party, but it was a strange kind of night. Early on, word circulated that there would be no formal remarks from RIM execs about the product, and no chance for the assembled press to ask questions. The two CEOs, Jim Balsillie and Lazaridis, walked around and talked with people informally.

The usual gang of New York tech reporters were there. But so were others whose roles I couldn’t quite figure out. There was the basketball player Dwight Howard who, at 6 feet and 11 inches, towered above the fray and posed for pictures with “Entertainment Tonight” host Nancy O’Dell. (Though–like the fellow who didn’t recognize Lazaridis–I didn’t recognize either one and had to ask.) Howard later tweeted about the party–from an app running on an iPhone, no less. Oops.

Circulating, I talked with Balsillie about QNX, the operating system company that RIM acquired last year from Harman International, which is the basis of the PlayBook’s operating system. I remember meeting with QNX–pronounced CUE-nix–way back in 2001 when there was a sudden surge in interest in real-time operating systems for use in cars. Since then it has been widely adopted by the likes of Chrysler, Audi, BMW, GM, and Acura, to name a few.

Given that lineage, I told Balsillie that at the time that RIM bought it, I had been confused by RIM’s interest in QNX. “It’s got the chops to do a lot,” he said. He then proceeded to run down a long list of other things it does. GE also uses it to run turbines in nuclear power plants. Caterpillar uses it to control equipment used in coal and copper mines. The U.S. Postal Service uses it to sort letters. It’s also the operating system on Cisco Systems’ most power router, the CRS-1. “It’s got some serious chops,” he said again. “But sell a few million Playbooks and it’ll dwarf all those other things.”

I asked him if he’ll ever try to buy another hockey team. He’s tried a few times before, but the deals have, for one reason or another, never worked out. He laughed, and shook his head, very definitively. “No. No. Never again.”

At that, I shook his hand, and circulated again around the party and soon found myself chatting with Lazaridis, (pictured here during his interview at last year’s D: Dive Into Mobile conference) who began demonstrating the PlayBook. A group quickly gelled around a table to watch. Ever the engineer, he took particular pride in the device’s display capabilities, its light sensor that adjusts the brightness of the screen based on the level of ambient light in the room, its internal camera, and all the video formats it supports. He wanted to demonstrate Web video but was having trouble getting access to the Wi-Fi network in the room, apparently overwhelmed by all the other PlayBooks being demonstrated nearby. From my pocket I produced my Verizon MiFi and offered to let him use it. “Sure, why not?” he said. “Is it LTE?” No, but it would do.

Lazaridis was clearly having a good time showing off the device, seeming a bit like a father taking his two-year-old to the office to meet the co-workers. Despite the generally negative reviews–including one by ATD’s Walt Mossberg–that were published earlier in the day, he got people genuinely interested in the PlayBook. Peppered with questions about how the various wireless carriers will or won’t support tethering plans on the PlayBook, he said he didn’t know. He just wanted to show what it could do, and that was what was most important to him.

I’ve interviewed Lazaridis numerous times over the years. My perception is that he’s a lot more comfortable talking with people one on one or in small groups than he is on a stage with glaring lights or with cameras pointed at him. And though no one would say it, it was also pretty clear that his unfortunate meltdown during a BBC interview played a big part in the last-minute decision to cancel the press conference portion of the launch event. The result was, in the end, an example of what has become one of RIM’s biggest problems of late: a muddled and imprecise message in the face of nothing but clarity from its biggest rival, Apple. This launch event did little to dispel the perception that the PlayBook is anything more than the latest round of cannon fodder to march against an ever-strengthening iPad juggernaut.

“There are so many great things about this product, so many things it can do, once people get it in their hands, they’re just going to love it,” Lazaridis said at one point during his enthusiastic demonstration. If only it were that easy.