BlackBerry's last stand

29 Sep 2011

Amidst the cracks of the once almighty BlackBerry empire that recently saw its stock nosedive and many question the speed at which it is transitioning to its new QNX platform to compete with the likes of Apple and Android, there are a few bright lights. Southeast Asia is where the BB still enjoys something of a cult status and where the Canadian company is pinning its hopes.

Research In Motion has launched a new flagship store in Bangkok at the city’s high-end Paragon shopping centre, the first of its kind in the world. I had the chance to talk to Rohilesh Singh, senior director for retail strategy for RIM in East Asia at the launch and how it was more than just another flagship store and what it meant for his company.

RIM is notorious for being tight lipped but upon careful prying revealed a few nuggets of information. Singh said that BlackBerry had put a lot of cold, hard cash into the store. How much exactly? The only answer was, “a lot”. Well, that is more than we usually get out of RIM.

He said that RIM’s market share in Thailand was still growing year on year and quarter on quarter. He also suggested that in the upcoming months, RIM will be announcing the appointment of many new executives with a very strong background in the retail sector. Interesting.

The store was launched in partnership with a major distributor, J-Mart, whose CEO was somewhat more forthcoming with numbers. RIM’s market share at its existing stores was 18% and rising, with Nokia down to the mid twenties and Samsung at over 40% of what the chain shifts.

Meanwhile, the store itself was predictable enough in this post-Apple store era - 60 real devices to play with, not a dummy phone in sight, lots of trained (fingers crossed) people to answer your questions for new and existing customers, help to transfer all your settings to your new device. Oh, and there was BlackBerry branded water to quench your thirst too.

Perhaps the only major deviation from the tech norm was the way the walls were plastered with pictures of celebrities and their quotes of love of the BB.

That seems to be BlackBerry’s answer to the threat from Android and Apple: Leveraging their closed BBM ecosystem as an elite messaging club that only those with a BB can enter. That is quite a different message from the enterprise messaging solution that other markets are used to. That, and the fact that fashion conscious ladies with manicured nails still love a physical keyboard over capacitive touchscreens.

Asked what he was doing in terms of developer engagement to help shift the reported stock of 800,000 Playbooks that are piling up, Singh said he liked the first part of my question and said RIM will be holding a series of regional developer conferences with one scheduled in Bangkok for 7-8 December. So the localised apps on QNX should be coming, if not quite in time for the early adopters.

All in all, it is clear that RIM is doubling down the hatches and focusing on the markets where it still sees growth and has a strong presence. The question is, is it enough and how will the transition to QNX for its next generation of devices work? Will it be as smooth as Apple’s iOS upgrades or a rip and replace job similar to going from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone? On that last point, Singh only said that today, people want the latest BB 7 because it is 40% faster than before and it is the best smartphone out there. When the next generation of QNX based devices arrives, people will want them again as it will be the best then. Here’s to positive thinking.

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