BlackBerry’s star appears to be waning, especially in developed markets in Europe and the US, with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android threatening to eclipse it in smartphones.
But BlackBerry maker, Canada’s Research in Motion (RIM), reckons escalating constraints on mobile networks — and the possibility of some countries running short of radio frequency spectrum in the next few years — could help the company weather the competitive storm.
Operators, including those in SA, offer cheap, fixed-cost and unlimited on-device browsing and e-mail using the popular BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS). This has proved particularly popular in the price-conscious youth segment.
Craige Fleischer, RIM’s newly appointed regional director for Southern Africa, plays down the pressures the company is under in developed markets, citing a recent report by Rysagy Research on mobile broadband capacity constraints. “The US could run out of spectrum in the next three to five years if present data consumption trends continue,” he says.
“Data efficiency has been part of BlackBerry’s DNA from very beginning,” says Fleischer. “RIM began life as a mobile virtual network operator, so it needed to find the most efficient way to use data because it was purchasing and reselling it.”
In Europe and the US, networks are beginning to feel what Fleischer calls a “capacity crunch”. He says the efficient way in which BlackBerry devices handle data could become even more important. “BlackBerry is twice as efficient in terms of network use for browsing and social media than equivalent smartphones, and about four times more efficient for e-mail,” he says.
Part of this can be attributed to the way BlackBerry devices prioritise data, loading only crucial data first while the rest caches in the background. “BlackBerry devices are also ‘aware’ of congestion on a network, and so can prioritise tasks based on network status. In crisis situations, like we saw in Haiti, SMSes and calls were not going through, but BlackBerry messages were.”
Fleischer says the combination of low-cost smartphones like its popular 8520 model and the benefits to network operators of “incentivising” customers to opt for data-efficient handsets will ensure continued popularity of the BlackBerry, despite growing competition from Google and Apple.
“We’re getting data from analysts saying that by 2015 more African people will have access to mobile broadband than electricity,” says Fleischer. “By then, there will be an estimated 265m mobile device users in Africa.”
BlackBerry’s popularity is still growing in Africa, according to Fleischer. In the first three weeks of the last quarter, BlackBerry added 1m subscribers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. As the cost of the 8520 comes down, it becomes even more appealing, especially to those buying it outright rather than on contract.”
Fleischer says RIM offers fixed-price plans in 36 African countries via 80 operators. The ability to contain costs via fixed-cost data pricing is one of the main driving forces behind BlackBerry’s popularity on the continent, he adds.
RIM’s advantage in this area may not last forever, though. Already, Nokia is lobbying mobile operators in SA and elsewhere to introduce fixed-cost data plans similar to BIS on its devices.
But RIM is fighting back in other ways, Fleischer says. It will soon launch an application emulator, allowing BlackBerry users to run Android applications on their phones. Google’s Android Market has far more apps available than BlackBerry’s own market and this could prove an important bridge while the company shifts users and developers to its new QNX operating system.
QNX, which powers RIM’s PlayBook tablet PC, will over time become the operating system that powers all of the company’s products. — Craig Wilson, TechCentral