RIM PlayBook: Starting At $499, Is It A Viable 2nd Or 3rd Tablet Brand?

After months of anticipation, today RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) finally confirmed prices for its PlayBook tablet and a retail strategy to sell it: the devices, which will first ship as WiFi-only, will retail at prices starting at $499 (getting in just under CEO Jim Balsillie’s claim back in November that it would sell for “less than $500”). Come April 19, the PlayBook will be sold in a number of retail outlets, including 20,000 locations of Best Buy in the U.S. and Canada, RadioShack, Costco, and many others.

Pre-orders for the device begin today, the company said in a release, and will be sold in three models with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage and priced respectively at $499, $599 and $699.

The news follows an announcement made in February that Sprint (NYSE: S) nabbed an operator exclusive on the first 4G PlayBook, which will be equipped with WiMax to run on its mobile broadband network.

It’s a relief to see the PlayBook tablet finally hitting the market so that consumers can judge it for themselves after so many months of seeing official and unofficial chatter about the device.

Although the company has, for the last several months, been pushing hard on the PlayBook — encouraging developers for the platform, and using tradeshows and executive appearances to promote the device — RIM has also faced some damaging publicity over the PlayBook that has threatened to veer RIM out of the running for viable third player (or even second-player, if the flux of Android tablets ends up fragmenting that market for individual vendors), even before the device launched. Among them:

A damning (if very funny) open letter from developer Jamie Murai to RIM, detailed his disastrous experience trying to create a PlayBook app. That highlighted the challenges that RIM may be having in getting developers on side. One excerpt of the widely-circulated letter:

You win. I concede defeat. I no longer want to attempt developing an app for the Playbook. Are you happy now? Surely you must be. Considering how terribly designed the entire process is, from the registration right through to loading an app into the simulator, I can only assume that you are trying to drive developers away by inconveniencing them as much as humanly possible.

The follow-up from a RIM exec pledging to make things right seemed too little, too late.

And more than one person expressed exasperation about how the PlayBook would not come with integrated BlackBerry Messenger services (although one could tether their handsets to use it); and initial models would only be WiFi-enabled, with cellular connectivity coming later.

Reports of RIM devices running Android apps only served to dilute the message even further. The push was not helped with the news of the resignation of RIM’s chief marketing officer, Keith Pardy.

Now, it seems, we can put these issues to one side and see how the device actually fares in the market. You can see a full list of the distributors for the WiFi Playbook here.