MONTREAL - For Research In Motion, the future is all about PlayBook, the BlackBerry maker's answer to Apple's iPad, and whether it can help rejuvenate the smartphone company.

Research In Motion is expected to report strong results on Thursday, driven by international growth and improved sales in the North American market.

But, inevitably, the launch of the PlayBook early next year will be intrinsic to RIM's success in the new year and will be front and centre in any predictions made about its prospects.

"If they can lever the tablet to get back into the high end of the smartphone business, then the numbers are going to go up," telecom analyst Matthew Robison said.

The PlayBook is aimed at business users and will be used tethered to a BlackBerry, providing the same level of security for information on the tablet. RIM is also expected to debut a brand new operating system for its tablet that will be used in future smartphones.

"It has the potent of really invigorating the market for RIM products," said Robison of Wunderlich Securities Inc. in San Francisco.

If the PlayBook performs in the field as well as the demos and paper specifications suggest, then it will be a strong multimedia device that will also attract a lot of consumer interest, Robison said.

He said if RIM doesn't execute on the PlayBook, the company will likely at least hold its own and grow moderately in the coming years.

Analysts expect the new BlackBerry Torch, which has both a touchscreen and slideout keyboard, will have helped to increase North American sales.

"We believe North America was better than many expect, with aggressive promotions by AT&T and Verizon for the holidays," BMO Capital Markets analyst Tim Long said in a research note.

Long believes RIM's business subscriber base in North America is continuing to grow, despite news about the company losing share.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky said he expects RIM to beat analysts' expectations for the third-quarter of fiscal 2011, but noted that sentiment is expected to remain "polarized" over RIM's future.

"Execution remains the largest risk to our view," Abramsky wrote in a research note.

Abramsky has estimated revenue at $5.5 billion for the quarter and earnings per share at $1.68, above street estimates of $5.4 billion and $1.64 per share.

Other analysts haven't been optimistic about RIM's future.

Mark McKechnie of Gleacher & Co. has a price target of US$70 per share and recently lowered his rating for RIM shares to "underperform" from a buy rating.