If Apple is correct that 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have tested or deployed its iPad tablet in some fashion then there's a hungrier appetite for tablets in the business world than previous believed.

And if anyone could make a serious dent in the small-to-medium business and enterprise space, it's Research in Motion (RIM), the makers of the popular BlackBerry smartphone. The Canadian technology company is readying the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet for a late March launch.

In case you haven't been following the hype, the PlayBook is a 7-inch touchscreen tablet powered by a dual-core processor for speedy performance (including smooth multitasking), a high-resolution WSVGA (1024 x 600 resolution) display and two HD cameras: a 5-megapixel camera for shooting video and snapping pictures and a 3-megapixel camera facing the user for video conferencing.

The Wi-Fi-enabled .9-pound tablet includes a browser that supports Adobe Flash-based websites and has a micro-HDMI port to connect to a high-definition source, such as an HDTV or projector.

Secure communications a priority
Most importantly, perhaps, RIM is leveraging its strong relationship with businesses (and perhaps more importantly, their IT departments) to ensure the PlayBook meets all security requirements. 

"Not only is it smaller and more powerful [than the iPad], which is better suited for business, but is meant to work well with corporate email systems, offering better security and encryption," says Scott Steinberg, CEO and lead technology analyst for TechSavvy Global in Seattle. "From the ground-up, the PlayBook looks tailor-made for traveling executives and mobile sales forces."

On email security, Steinberg referenced RIM's decision to implement a "Bluetooth tethering" feature between the PlayBook and nearby BlackBerry, therefore emails read on the tablet are in fact only stored on the smartphone.

"It might be more cumbersome to carry a second device, but the reality is most enterprises already use BlackBerrys as part of their everyday operations, so this won't likely be a tremendous inconvenience -- unless you don't use BlackBerry, of course," says Steinberg.

Tim Doherty, a research analyst for small and medium businesses at IDC, agrees that, while some perceive tethering as a shortcoming, it is in fact a blessing for business. 

"While some people consider it a drawback, the PlayBook's Bluetooth bridge feature is hugely desirable to IT departments because, as devices like smartphones and tablets become more capable and with faster connections, there's more sensitive corporate data being exchanged, and thus security is a bigger concern," explains Doherty. "The PlayBook, though, is inherently secure because email is accessed through BlackBerry. If the PlayBook is lost or stolen, you don't have to worry and it's one less device IT doesn't have to secure."

Steinberg says time will soon tell on what the Bluetooth pairing will do for battery life and whether users will need a more expensive data plan.

App-etite for downloads?
While the PlayBook has impressive software and a more secure email solution, it's no secret the BlackBerry App World lags behind the competition when it comes to downloadable software. Not only are there fewer applications ("apps") at BlackBerry App World compared to Apple's App Store and Android Market, but they're generally more expensive, harder to find and more cumbersome to update.

Complicating matters is the fact the PlayBook will have its own app store. That is, it won't support BlackBerry apps the way the iPad can run most iPhone apps, so RIM must start from scratch.

"Without question, Apple trumps everyone else when it comes to apps, so it will be interesting to see what RIM has up its sleeve to become a major contender in this space," says Steinberg. "There's a lot of competition, so I think they need to do something to establish here."

Doherty says the developer ecosystem for the growth of a new platform is "critical" and, like Steinberg, is watching to see how RIM will tackle apps for PlayBook. "It remains to be seen what RIM will do, but it's a potential issue," says Doherty.

"Small business is where the line between the consumer and worker is, and we're all consumers in our home lives," reminds Doherty, so "hopefully RIM's device will straddle the line between work and play to make the product more compelling to as wide an audience as possible."