Blackberry’s Future [BBC]

In some ways our world all looks very similar. Prefab coffee and fast food chains, Cars that all look the same. Everyone on Facebook. But what we–and by we I include the people who actually produce and sell these goods and services–don’t do a good job of is understanding while the global products may be similar, how they’re actually used can be very different. 

In short: Just because your fancy product is doing well in country X, do you actually know why? 

This, it turns out, is kind of important. Because if you don’t understand that, chances are you won’t know how to keep the good thing going, let alone expand on it. 

Take, for example, Research in Motion, They’ve done extraordinarily well in some countries, but none more so than Indonesia. Everyone, it seems has a BlackBerry. A friend recently bought one for his six year old daughter so she wouldn’t be teased at school. 

This is music to the ears of RIM, because as you may have heard they’re not doing so well in other parts of the world. So it made sense for the company to try to sell its devices to another 7 million Indonesians, After all, the first 7 loved them. 

So they’ve launched a new phone. It has a radio in it, because that’s what they heard people in emerging markets like Indonesia want. It has a special button on the side which will take users to its BB messaging service, which is what group-oriented Indonesians love about the Blackberry. And it’s going to be cheaper. 

But RIM didn’t create its success in Indonesia,. That was organic–a lucky mix of Indonesians’ love of new things and their conservatism that keeps them wedded to products after others have moved on. Local telephone providers helped by keeping prices low. And out of it all came a lively ecosystem of program developers, street corner vendors selling accessories and fixing broken phones, and malls full of second hand dealers. 

Now RIM is trying to formalize this, But they may not completely understand the unique culture of adoption and usage that Indonesians have given to the BlackBerry, which is quite different to how a corporate drone in New York might use it. 

As globalization throws up more of these quirks companies are going to have to work harder, faster and better to understand why their products are popular. Because if they don’t they may not only find themselves unable to build on that success; they may find their efforts to expand actually make things worse. By trying to expand downmarket in Indonesia for example, RIM may run against one of the very things that makes the brand popular: its exclusivity, which makes a BB a status symbol.

That may sound odd to someone in Canada, Hong Kong or London for whom the BlackBerry is yesterday’s news. But that’s the point. Globalisation may look good on paper, but going local is the only way to make it a success strategy.  

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world

A piece I wrote for Reuters with Lee Chyenyee: 

(Reuters) – In the 1990s, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei visited the United States several times, hoping to learn from its leaders of industry about how to turn his Chinese telecoms equipment maker into a global company. On one trip in 1992, in the days before China had credit cards, he paid all his bills with cash from a $30,000 stash in his briefcase.

Sixteen years later, Ren was listed among Forbes’ 400 richest Chinese and Huawei was one of the world’s largest telecoms gear vendors, but the United States still treated him as an outsider. He was keen to win customers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint but had secured just $200 million of business in the U.S. in 2007 – in a $23 billion global market. Early that year, the United States effectively vetoed Huawei’s bid for U.S. networking equipment manufacturer 3Com on security grounds.

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world | Reuters

WhatsApp [BBC commentary]

You may remember a time, not too long ago, when to make a long distance phone call you had to go through an operator. You would wait as you could hear her asking another operator for a connection. It was not always successful. A lot depended on the perseverance of the operator–especially when trying to call a place like Burma.

But the basic idea worked: Anyone with a telephone could, in theory, reach anyone else with a telephone. That idea has gotten lost somewhere down the line. Remember the early days of SMS, or text messages? And how you could only send a message to someone else if they used the same operator as you? Only last year did Japanese carriers get around to allowing messages from other carriers onto their network.

This is the problem of telecommunication companies writ large. They seem unable to see that what is good for their user is good for them. Take a service called, unfortunately, WhatsApp–app being short for application. WhatsApp is one of those things we called disruptive–meaning it overturns an industry from outside. WhatsApp, and a few other services like it, are once again making a mockery of mobile phone operators.

I always know when a technology is disruptive because I usually hear about it first from my non-techie friends.. WhatsApp at its most simple allows phone users to send SMS messages to each other without paying for an SMS message, Instead, it uses the modern phone’s data connection–which is usually cheaper. WhatsApp’s viral spread–it sends more than 2 billion messages a day–is largely down to this simple feature. If you and your friend both have WhatsApp on your phone and that person’s phone number you can use the service. For $1 a year, and the first year is free.

Mobile carriers hate this because SMS messages were a big part of their business. Consultants Ovum, for example, reckon that they’ll lose more than $23 billion in mobile messaging revenue this year.. But that’s only the start. WhatsApp allows you to do things like send video, photos and have group chats very, very easily–much more easily than any service the carrier offers, and often more reliably. And WhatsApp have written versions of their software that run on even the most basic phones you see around.

Carriers are fretting, and for good reason. Not so much because they’re losing revenue but because they’re losing the bigger game. WhatsApp is grabbing their customers by offering them cheap, open doors to all their friends, in the same way that Facebook and other social networks are. They are what telcos call Over the Top services–meaning that they piggy back the cellphone network to build a social network to which the operator themselves don’t have a key, Unless of course, they close them down.

That won’t happen, of course. At some point operators may just have to settle for  less money being a pipe. Which is not a bad thing: In the spirit of those human operators of old, making sure the message gets through is not that dishonorable a profession.

In Asia, BlackBerry’s RIM sees a glimmer of hope

A piece I wrote from Jakarta on RIM’s efforts to expand in those emerging markets where it had already done well: 

(Reuters) – The launch in India of a new BlackBerry by Research In Motion Ltd is not just a nod to its lower-end users who love it less for its security, push email and seamless roaming than for its simplicity and its Messaging. It’s a strategy the Canadian company hopes will help fill both a hole in its balance sheet and a half-year wait for its next big thing — the BlackBerry 10 platform.

But will it work?

The handset itself won’t impress devotees: its main selling point is a dedicated side button that lets users chat over its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and a built-in FM radio, which lower-end Nokia phones have had for a decade. It works only on the slower 2G networks, and the camera isn’t that great. But, RIM says, that’s the point.

Rest at Analysis: In Asia, BlackBerry’s RIM sees a glimmer of hope