The BlackBerry PlayBook, which is expected to be released by the end of the first quarter of 2011 in North America made its Asian debut during DEVCON Asia in Bali last week.

With five PlayBooks available for attendees to check out, the tablets nearly stole the show as its booth became the busiest at the conference – nevermind that classes and workshops were happening throughout the event.

Clearly everyone at the show was interested in the new tablet, and, given the prospect of a big Indonesian market, the PlayBook looks to receive a positive reaction from gadget-obsessed Indonesians.

The PlayBook’s Asian market opportunity

When Samsung launched the Galaxy Tab in Jakarta last year, they ran out of 1,000 units in less than a day, although apparently that’s all the stock they had for Indonesia for the next several weeks. The iPad was even more successful, having sold by the hundreds on a daily basis at most Apple Premium Resellers in the country since its launch in mid December.

The tablet market is a nascent category in the mobile computing industry and RIM’s managing director for Southeast Asia, Gregory Wade, is unsurprisingly bullish about the prospect of his company’s contender. He sees the tablet as the first computing platform for many users so it’s a chance for tablet makers to seize the opportunity ahead of netbook vendors.

According to a report that came out during the conference, RIM plans to ship 1 million PlayBooks in the first quarter. Given that the tablet isn’t expected until March, RIM has less than a month to deliver on that target. The iPad took 27 days to reach that milestone, so there’s still a chance for the Waterloo-based company.

With three flash storage capacities to choose from, 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB, Wade is adamant that the PlayBook will start from under US$500 but will not say the exact pricing structure.

Hands on with PlayBook

The PlayBook carries an impressive technical specs. It’s powered by a 1 GHz dual core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, 1 GB RAM, has a 5 megapixel rear camera, a 3 megapixel front camera, a 5300 mAh battery, with a 7-inch screen displaying 1024 * 600 pixels, which gives it 170 pixels per inch, greater density (and thus sharper) than the iPad’s 132 ppi.

There is still unfortunately a company-wide silence on how long the built-in battery will last, though apparently, RIM is aiming for more than eight hours on a single charge. A screenshot on Engadget’s preview of the PlayBook however showed 4 hours and 5 minutes left with a 93% charge remaining. Given RIM’s goal, there’s a long way to go to optimize the battery.

The PlayBooks on display were remarkably responsive and handled several videos, animations, and games all at once without a hitch. While Flash-based games worked, there’s an annoyingly significant lag. Flash-based sites on the other hand, worked as expected.

Unfortunately the tablet’s ‘settings’ page was inaccessible and the App World is still nowhere to be seen, so attendees were left with what were effectively locked down devices.

There was no mail app, no BlackBerry Messenger app, and no calendar app either. Company representatives said the display units were meant to be a technology preview, not the final product, although very close to it.

The PlayBook’s interface resembles that of version six of the BlackBerry OS, though internally they’re very different. Running the Unix-based operating system from QNX, RIM is working hard to integrate the tablet to its BlackBerry service. Somehow, unfortunately, integration means having to have a BlackBerry to be able to use email and calendar on the PlayBook. It’s apparently not meant to be a standalone device, at least at this point in time.

The tablet wars are just beginning

By the time the PlayBook is launched, it will face a significant competitor as Apple is expected to release the next version of the iPad before April comes around. Some at the conference said RIM may well be too late to enter the market, but at the moment, Samsung and Apple are the only strong contenders in the space, and Samsung is the only other one with a seven-inch tablet.

Since Motorola’s hasn’t launched its Android-based Xoom yet, the battle for the tablet is only just beginning.