As Research in Motion (RIM) tries to find new markets and a competitive edge for its soon-to-be-released tablet PlayBook, the company has announced a partnership with Microsoft that will enable it to offer Office 365 services.

The BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) for customers using Microsoft's Office 365 will be free as a subscription service and, as a result, should be a lot more attractive than the current BES service that is hosted by Microsoft rather than RIM (news, site).

RIM, Office 365

The timing of the deal is no accident, as RIM aims to release its tablet PlayBook either this month or next month, with beta-testing of Office 365 services due by the middle of the year. There is little doubt that RIM is hoping the Office 365 connection will give it the added punch needed to take on the likes of Apple’s iPad.

However, the Office 365 services it will be offering -- initially, at least -- falls short of the full capabilities of Microsoft’s successor to BPOS.

In the RIM blog post announcing the partnership, the company says it will be offering a feature set similar to its existing BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express and will initially be available for Exchange Online as a subscription service.

The price of the subscription itself is already making companies sit up, RIM says, as it will cost US$ 0 per user/month -- that’s not a misprint either -- and will be available initially in closed beta from sometime in the middle of the year.

This will replace the existing Microsoft-hosted Blackberry enterprise server for BPOS, which currently costs US$ 10/user/month.

The service will also offer new functionality that includes the ability to keep corporate and personal data separate using its Balance technology. It will also make Blackberry management easier with more device policies and easier setting changes as well as the ability to locate and manage multiple Blackberry users at once.

While users will have to wait until the beta is released to try out the new functionality, the new subscription price for enterprise customers will kick into place with existing services immediately. RIM has also indicated that it will be providing support for other messaging platforms in the future, moving the company firmly into the cloud-based enterprise services space.

RIM, PlayBook

According to reports in Bloomberg, RIM says that it has shown the new PlayBook tablet, which will be one of the main beneficiaries of the new service, to a “significant” number of Fortune 100 companies and that interest in the device is high.

With the Office 365 deal, the Playbook should be more attractive, with Jim Tobin, RIM’s senior vice president, software and business services, telling Bloomberg that they expect about a quarter of RIM’s large corporate customers shifting data into the cloud by the end of this year, with half having made the shift by 2012.

PlayBook is expected to retail for about US$ 500 when it is released and to come with a 19-inch touchscreen. With it, RIM is hoping to regain some of the momentum is has been losing to iPad, or some of the Android-based tablets.