For years, the PC market was dominated by one operating system. A lot of people weren’t keen on it but it did provide one useful outcome – and that’s the fact that you could go as close as you could to guaranteeing that the software would run on your computer.

Because just about every computer came with that operating system.

Speed ahead a few years and the tablet market is in a similar embyronic stage PCs saw in the late-80s/very-early-90s before Windows had become a dominant force.

And that means we can expect to see some carnage and few bits of “roadkill” lining the road.

Research in Motion (RIM) is set to join the burgeoning tablet market in a matter of weeks, releasing its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet in the US for $499.

The same price as the basic iPad 2.

Some commentators are questioning whether the PlayBook can survive in a market full of larger designs, saying the seven-inch form factor is too small to work. Even Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced last year that he thought a seven-inch tablet would be unworkable.

However, size isn’t likely to be the PlayBook’s major issue. If anything, the smaller size might be a point of differentiation in its favour.

No, the more significant issue for RIM is the operating system.

The tablet market is quickly starting to fill up with different tablet operating systems – Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android 3.0, HP’s WebOS and RIM’s PlayBook tablet OS.

The operating system wasn’t so much of an issue for Apple and Google because both brands used the same OS it previously released for its smartphones. That meant there was no shortage of apps to run on the tablets when they arrived. (Sure, at their launch, the lack of tablet-specific apps meant performance and look weren’t great to start with, but there were plenty of apps to run.).

RIM is starting with a brand-new operating system, one that the company is believed to be thinking of moving to its phones down the track – the opposite way to how Apple and Google did it. And in all likelihood, the wrong way to do it.

The issue here is that you’re starting with a brand-new product – an unknown quantity.

Apple and Google made it easier for people to consider moving to a tablet by already having a truckload of apps ready to run on it with an operating system that many of them already knew because they had Android and iOS smartphones.

Here, RIM is asking people to sign up to a new device with a new operating system and an unknown number of apps. The more barriers you put in buyer’s way, the more they’re likely to look at your competitors. And when you’re competitors are Apple and Google, it’s a brave move.

Up until now, RIM’s market has been corporate and there, it has succeeded well. But look at the promo shots for the PlayBook and you’re talking as much about business as you are about gaming. For the PlayBook to succeed, RIM needs to get plenty of “bums on seats”, so it’s trying to promote the device to everyone.

As of today, the PlayBook App World had just over 25,000 apps on its books, which isn’t bad. However, nearly 8,000 of these were reference or ebooks and over 6,000 were themes, which drops the actual app count to just under 11,000. Now 11,000 apps is a lot but a platform lives and dies by its apps and you couldn’t guarantee every one of those apps was of the highest quality, just as the same can be said for Apple’s AppStore and Google’s App Market.

Letting Apple get the iPad 2 out first also isn’t likely to help. Reports have been swirling around Taiwan that some major brands are talking about withholding tablet launches until the iPad 2 hype dies down a bit.

With Apple selling the entry-level 16GB iPad 2 for $499 in the US, RIM is going to have an uphill battle convincing people the PlayBook is better than the iPad 2, whether for business or play.

To be fair, Google’s tablet strategy hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing either.

Its Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system will be its first to support screen resolution of better than 800×480-pixels. Some brands such as Viewsonic and Samsung have launched pre-Honeycomb tablets with Android 2.2 or 2.3 operating systems but the lack of decent screen resolution has left Apple with most of the free running.

It’s unlikely we’ll see anything compete with the iPad 2 until the second-half of 2011 at the earliest, possibly even later.

But in the meantime, can RIM make the PlayBook last the distance? It’ll need to convince both users and developers that the platform has the features and the difference to do so.

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