With at least half of the Indonesian smartphone market in its grasp, BlackBerry’s future now depends not on messaging but on its new phones with improved web browsing and computing, Aula predicts. As the former director of Nokia Indonesia back when it controlled the country’s cellphone market (a period referred to as “Nokia Time”), Aula has seen telephone titans come and go. He thinks that RIM’s dominance could likewise prove ephemeral. “It’s now all about content beyond messaging,” he explains. “That’s what Apple and Samsung are selling.” During a meal with Thorsten Heins on the day Samsung’s World Tour came to town, Aula got an early look at BB10, which he describes as “very strong.” But RIM, he warns, could ill afford to delay releasing its new operating system and the phones that will use it. “The next phase for RIM here will depend on whether they have another killer app like BBM. And it depends on how fast they can launch it.”
To find that killer app, RIM conducted extensive research among Indonesian consumers to help refine BB10. More than anything else, says Hastings Singh, RIM’s managing director in South Asia, BlackBerry users want a machine that matches Samsung and Apple for browsing and computing while offering BBM and new apps tailored to the Indonesian market. So far, RIM’s success in creating locally crafted apps has been limited to an Islamic prayer guide and a tourism directory. To fertilize a new array of apps, RIM has launched a nationwide talent search for app developers across Indonesia and sponsored a regional series of “hackathon” competitions, including one in Jakarta recently that ran for 40 hours before the winning team came up with an app called Soccer Ticker.
In early October, RIM reinforced its app-seeding efforts by launching a $5-million BlackBerry Innovation Centre at the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia’s leading technical university. “This is the most exciting initiative in app training and development RIM’s ever done,” Singh told hundreds of young programmers gathered to bag some RIM swag before he awarded research scholarships in mobile computing to 16 students. When a student in a shirt emblazoned with the Android logo parked himself directly in front of RIM’s logoed podium, polite laughter rippled through the room. Singh pressed on, reprising a speech packed with mobile computing buzzwords–ecosystem, cloning, app community, rich app environment, innovation, innovation, innovation.
But for RIM to grow in Indonesia, or even hang on to its turf, new technology is only part of the challenge, according to many observers. RIM must also pull off a huge marketing coup, says Andy Jobs, a Jakarta TV executive who believes BlackBerry’s lustre as a status symbol is fading here (himself, he uses a Samsung phone and an iPhone in addition to his BlackBerry). RIM, he suggests, needs to aggressively target promotional campaigns toward the middle and lower tiers of the market. Until now, RIM has relied on Indonesian wireless carriers to market its BlackBerrys, says Jobs, who has a background in marketing at Indosat, Indonesia’s second-largest phone company. “Continuing to rely on the carriers for promotion would be a big mistake, because the telcos are not pushing BlackBerry. And the power of the telcos here is huge,” he warns. “I’m not saying RIM is dead. But the operators now are pushing iPhone and Android. So RIM will need to refocus its marketing, especially if they are counting on Indonesia to help them survive.”
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Until Arif Hidayat started selling cellphone airtime, his shop on a back alley in Bogor, a hardscrabble suburb of Jakarta, was devoted entirely to cigarettes, snacks and soft drinks. But when he began selling pay-as-you-go airtime a few years ago, his business quickly changed. Driven by the enormous popularity of cellphones–Indonesia’s 248 million people operate 260 million phones–Hidayat’s sales surged. These days, the bulk of his income comes from selling airtime and cellphones. The hottest item in his tiny shop is a Chinese-made smartphone that looks remarkably similar to a BlackBerry Torch, but which retails for about $40–a tenth of the cost of the real thing.
The BlackBerry knockoff–known locally as a Pineapple–is just one of many such look-alike products on offer: For about the same price as the Pineapple, he also sells a knockoff of a Samsung Galaxy phone. None of the imitation phones perform nearly as well as the real thing, acknowledges Hidayat: no BBM on a Pineapple. But in Bogor, where family incomes average about $100 a month, the Pineapple is priced right, he enthuses. “These are people who could never afford a real BlackBerry. But they are certainly happy to pay a little extra to upgrade from a conventional phone to a smartphone that offers many functions a BlackBerry offers.” Asked what people would be willing to pay to ditch their Pineapples for the real thing, Hidayat had a ready answer: “For a real BlackBerry? $100 at most.”