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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 ...

Bosun Tijani, who runs a tech hub for developers that gets funding from RIM, Google and Nokia, thinks this won’t come to pass for a long while. “We’ve had ‘3G’ for ages and we still can’t get it. What people are telling you is crap,” he says. “Right now, BlackBerry is still one of the only smartphones where it works. If you use some Android phones, you lose your data like that,” he says with a snap of his fingers. He even praises RIM’s oft-derided PlayBook tablet because it can tether to his phone’s wireless connection. That’s handy–he can read documents in the back of a car while the driver negotiates Lagos’s gridlock.

* * *

If RIM has been forced into a different game than the one it started in, you wouldn’t know it from the company’s presentations in Jakarta. In parlaying itself from a Canadian-based technology company with strong roots serving corporate and government clients in North America and Europe into a globalized consumer brand, RIM has achieved a vast transition in just a handful of years, said its chief marketing officer, Frank Boulben.

The narrative RIM’s CEO was selling in Jakarta was even more heroic: Thorsten Heins told his Indonesian partners–thanks to his assurance BB10 will enable significantly better Internet browsing and multitasking capabilities than Samsung and Apple have developed–that RIM is now poised to transform itself from a mobile-phone powerhouse to a mobile-computing innovator that will again surge ahead of its competitors. “We’re morphing to a new technology platform that will redefine our business,” Heins insisted as he manoeuvred among his guests in a hospitality suite at the Ritz-Carlton. “We’re redefining ourselves as mobile computing, not mobile phones.”

The same could be said, of course, of all smartphones for the past five years. Heins was probably on more solid ground when he emphasized cachet. In a rapidly industrializing country where annual GDP growth averages over 6 per cent and consumer spending is expected to grow 39 per cent by 2020, ownership of a BlackBerry telegraphs status. “We see the BlackBerry as a tool for success,” Heins said after an impromptu encounter with a handful of BlackBerry users outside RIM’s Indonesian headquarters. “It helps them win.”

If some of RIM’s guests at the Ritz-Carlton seemed uncannily familiar with Heins’s vision of mobile phones morphing into mobile computers, an explanation was obvious: Many of them had spent the previous day at a lavish event, also at the Ritz, sponsored by Samsung–RIM’s archrival here, as elsewhere. They’d been regaled with food, drink, demonstrations and gift bags, all in the name of promoting Samsung’s new line of phones. These, according to the spiel from Samsung executives, are all capable of “seamless multitasking, allowing users to quickly search content without having to go through various screen transitions.” So when Boulben boasted alongside Heins the next day that RIM’s new operating system would “take it to the next level” in offering a seamless flow between functions such as messaging, e-mailing and web browsing, there were no gasps in the room: What he got instead was a series of prickly questions about BlackBerry’s famously weak batteries, maddening service disruptions and the lack of RIM manufacturing facilities in Indonesia. (The complaints were much the same at a RIM press event in Lagos.)

With consolidated sales of $143-billion in 2011, Samsung Electronics is swagger-prone: Its event at the Ritz wasn’t labelled a product launch; it was a stop on a “World Tour.” But unlike with RIM’s effort to put on the Ritz, there were some very new, very shiny tangibles to be discussed: Arrayed in an alcove under the stewardship of a dozen svelte models in tight white jeans, Samsung’s entire lineup of Galaxy tablets and smartphones lay beeping and flashing like beguiling toys begging for playtime to begin. “Consumers expect mobile devices to fit seamlessly into their lifestyles and open the way to new experiences that they didn’t think possible,” cooed Yooyoung Kim, president of Samsung Indonesia. The latest Samsung phone, he said, is a “perfect example of a mobile device that encourages users to unleash their inner creativity.” And to pry away the Indonesian market from RIM, Kim vowed to double Samsung’s regional marketing team over the next 12 months.

Whether Samsung will topple RIM in Indonesia is a question Hasan Aula spends a lot of time pondering. He runs PT Teletama Artha Mandiri, Indonesia’s largest distributor of BlackBerry handsets. As intermediary between a procurement company in Singapore and 17,000 BlackBerry vendors across Indonesia, Aula follows the market dynamics with microscopic attention to detail–not least because he also distributes handsets for RIM’s competitors. “BlackBerry is controlling the smartphone market very well,” he says. The reason for its success in Indonesia, he adds, lies in the popularity of BBM: “It’s the killer app. People here have a very community-oriented mindset. BBM is seen to be private and secure, and with BlackBerry they get unlimited usage for e-mail, BBM and web browsing for as little as $5 a month.”

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