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Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins bonds with BlackBerry users in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Kemal Jufri/Panos Pictures)
Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins bonds with BlackBerry users in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Kemal Jufri/Panos Pictures)

ROB MAGAZINE

Where the BlackBerry still reigns supreme Add to ...

The morning ahead was looking packed enough for Thorsten Heins without having to worry about the traffic. Even with a police escort muscling Jakarta’s roads open for him, the CEO of Research In Motion knew that inching just a few kilometres across this metropolis could chew up a couple of hours. And Heins was determined to be airborne for the Philippines by early afternoon on this October day. Before the slog to the airport, his obligations included breakfast with the Canadian ambassador, a meeting with the head of a consumer group representing local BlackBerry users, a session with staff in RIM’s Jakarta office, a photo shoot, a press conference and a quick march through one of the many BlackBerry retail outlets mushrooming across this country of 248 million people. The pace was gruelling, but Heins had ample motivation for the blitz: “Indonesia’s crucial to us,” he declared.

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Heins even donned a traditional Indonesian batik shirt to prove his point. If the friendly local touch was offset by an aggressive security detail–a photographer for this magazine was threatened and strong-armed during a scheduled shoot–the tense reality at a good-news event seemed appropriate enough for a company that is in the fight of its life, and likewise for a CEO who must prove his mettle in short order.

With more than half of all Indonesia’s 20 million or more smartphone users currently tethered to BlackBerrys, now was the time, Heins said after the press conference, to step up RIM’s presence in the world’s fourth most-populous nation. Yesterday, he’d talked up RIM’s upcoming operating system and fresh suite of products–BlackBerry 10–with Indonesia’s main BlackBerry distributors and the CEOs of the country’s three largest phone companies. Depending on how BB10 fares, Heins knows, Indonesia’s love affair with Canada’s most famous export has strong potential to continue growing. The same is true in many developing-world markets around the globe.

The backdrop to this success story, however, is that RIM has lost most of its reliable, high-margin market share in rich countries in North America and Europe while gaining low-margin traction in unpredictable, poor ones. It’s a risky formula for recovery. But it may be the only hope that RIM has.

* * *

As Heins grinds his overbooked way around the globe, it’s a sweaty, sub-Saharan Sunday night on the industrial outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria, a twin of sorts to Jakarta: Each city, with more than 10 million people, is the largest one in the country, humming with energy and potential. At the hangar-sized New Afrika Shrine, Femi Kuti is leading his Afrobeat band, thundering out a wall of sound as female dancers stomp on the vast stage and gyrate in cages raised above the audience.

Wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke, people are enjoying themselves–dancing, drinking, shooting pool. Thanks to the low admission fee, the crowd is a cross-section of Nigerian society. But the people dancing near the stage are younger. At the hippest spot in town, it’s not lighters bobbing in the dark–it’s a constellation of glowing BlackBerrys, recording the spectacle.

Here, as in dozens of other kinetic boom towns anchoring the world’s teeming emerging markets, there are no iPhones in sight. Canadian technology reigns supreme: The BlackBerry is Nigeria’s most popular smartphone, no contest.

The BlackBerry now accounts for roughly 50 per cent of the rapidly growing smartphone market in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country and its second-largest economy after South Africa–where the BlackBerry is also the most popular smartphone. The tool that Bay Street loved, and now loves to hate, is not just cooler than all the other smartphones here; it is the device of strivers and celebrities alike. It signals that its bearer has arrived, that you are very possibly a big man, that you are a somebody among the masses of the developing world still thumbing SMS messages on their Nokia dumbphones like a farmer, getting absolutely nowhere.

“Everybody sees me with a BlackBerry and actually smiles, like, ‘Yeah, he’s the man,’ ” says Albert Samuel, a 28-year-old salesperson at Effects Network, one of the mobile phone shops in Computer Village, a ramshackle district of Lagos near the international airport where many of the city’s consumer electronics are sold. “Here in Lagos, everybody who uses a BlackBerry is presumed to be a very rich guy, somebody who has everything.”

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