RIM bets on existing users for BlackBerry growth

Research In Motion's 33 million-strong BlackBerry Messenger community and existing device holders helping to expand smartphone business and negating impact of rivals entering enterprise smartphone space, says company exec.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

BALI--Amid reports that it is falling behind rivals Apple and facing imminent threat from Google in the enterprise smartphone market, Research In Motion (RIM) says it is growing its BlackBerry user base through a strong consumer base, particularly in emerging markets such as Indonesia and Thailand.

According to Gregory Wade, managing director of RIM Southeast Asia, consumers in Indonesia and Thailand are fervent users of one of the Canadian company's first and most popular "super app", the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). Globally, the BBM community comprises over 33 million users, revealed Wade, during an interview Thursday at RIM's developer conference here

He added that while the penchant for smartphones in advanced countries such as Singapore, for example, appear to be favoring Apple's iPhones and Google's Android-based handsets, this is "simply not true" among emerging markets in the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America as well as Western Europe.

In fact, Wade noted that as more BlackBerry users from these markets travel abroad, they are a major driver in influencing their friends and family members to get a BlackBerry device just so they can keep in touch via the BBM app.

Singapore carrier StarHub, for instance, had also responded to this need by introducing prepaid BlackBerry data service plans, he said.

The growing influence of consumers in the smartphone market was identified about 18 to 24 months ago, the executive said. To accommodate this shift toward "consumerization", RIM launched its first hybrid smartphone--the BlackBerry Torch last year, which boasts both a touchscreen and qwerty keyboard--and dedicated ongoing efforts to enhance its BlackBerry operating system (OS) to include better Web browsing and feature-rich apps.

Furthermore, the company is planning to leverage its growing BBM community by setting up the BBM Social Platform initiative, revealed Tyler Lessard, RIM's vice president of global alliances and developer relations.

During his keynote address Thursday, he said third-party developers can utilize the BBM Social Platform to either incorporate the BBM app into their own apps or build apps that are an extension of BBM's core functionality as an instant messaging service.

Lessard said:"This is a huge opportunity because of the fast-growing [BBM] community...and the BBM Social Platform's open beta version will be coming soon."

Wong Teck Zhung, market analyst of client devices at IDC Asia-Pacific's domain research group, affirmed RIM's moves to improve its existing OS. He told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the company's acquisition of Swedish mobile software design company The Astonishing Tribe last December showed that it is looking to enhance its products' existing user interface (UI).

"We expect development on the UI to start catching up with Android and iOS," Wong added.

QNX a "game-changer"?
However, Ovum's analyst for devices and platforms, Nick Dillon, pointed to another acquisition, QNX Software Systems, that he said could trigger great potential for RIM.

"It opens up a number of opportunities...enabling the company to move beyond its traditional base of smartphone devices," Dillon said. The PlayBook, RIM's first tablet device, is an early example, he noted, though the QNX OS can possibly be used on "less traditional devices such as automobiles and set-top boxes".

"The [QNX] software is already largely proven on these types of devices, so it will be the ambition of the company that decides which new markets it moves into," said the analyst in an e-mail interview.

Earlier this month, RIM's co-CEO Mike Lazaridis told technology news site PCMag.com that RIM is betting on QNX to carry its business through the next decade. Lazaridis noted that he is in no rush to introduce QNX OS-based, dual-core smartphones--or "superphones" as he termed it--as the hardware technology needed to run the software currently is not where he would like it to be. That said, he added that the company has placed the development of these superphones on its "to-do list".

RIM acquired QNX Software Systems from Harman International in April last year. In a press statement then, Lazaridis said:"We look forward to ongoing collaboration between Harman, QNX and RIM to further integrate and enhance the user experience between smartphones and in-vehicle audio and infotainment systems."

Responding to Lazaridis' 10-year plan for QNX, IDC's Wong questioned whether the time lag between the launch of RIM's PlayBook and the introduction of its superphones might be detrimental to the company.

"The smartphone industry is rapidly changing and the UI may not be a game-changer one year from now if the industry has moved on to something else," he said.

Kevin Kwang of ZDNet Asia reported from RIM's DevCon Asia 2011 in Bali, Indonesia.

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