RIM acquires The Astonishing Tribe for help with upcoming tab

by Phil Hornshaw

Research in Motion (RIMM), the company that produces BlackBerry, bought user interface design firm The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) today, rallying the company to help with its PlayBook tablet PC that’s coming out next year.

Joining up with TAT is kind of a big deal for RIM as it preps PlayBook. The tablet market has pretty well exploded since Apple (AAPL) launched the iPad last year and a lot of companies have put out significant entries into the market for the holidays. Earlier this year, the iPad was dominating the tablet market; but since then, Samsung (005930.KS) released its Galaxy Tab with Google’s Android operating system, and HP (HPQ) dropped the Windows 7-based Slate tablet. The market is becoming more of a battle ground every day, especially with the holiday shopping season running at full-tilt. And there are more Android-based tabs headed to shelves, as well.

RIM could use a win against Apple, and TAT might be able to help in that department. The Blackberry maker has been steadily losing smart phone market share to Apple and Google (GOOG) in terms smartphone sales during the last two years. It still maintains some force in the corporate world, but even that influence might be slipping: Bloomberg reported last month that Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) were both considering switching from BlackBerry to iPhone for use by their employees -- they were just working to make the iPhone secure enough to be used for bank work on a day-to-day basis. Dell (DELL) also reportedly switched to its Windows 7-based phone, the Venue Pro, rather than have its employees use BlackBerry for work.

RIM maintains its corporate subscriptions remain strong, and that might be the case, but Apple recently became the No. 4 phone seller in the world after edging out the company.

So it would be great for RIM to release PlayBook with some of the slick UI treatment that TAT is known for. As GigaOM reported, TAT has said that software it has produced, or concepts it has created, appear in nearly half a billion devices and cars -- not to mention being built into 15 percent of all mobile phones.

TAT might give RIM an edge in more places than just its new entry into the tablet market. With the company under its umbrella, expect to see TAT UI designs popping up in all of RIM’s new products and smart phones.

A slicker, cleaner UI experience will definitely help BlackBerry against Apple’s iOS -- that company thrives on simplicity -- and Google’s more open Android.

Not to say that TAT could be BlackBerry’s saving grace, but this is good news for the company and its customers. It also means that the battle for mobile computing and smartphones is far from clear-cut