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RIM's Indonesian bonanza Add to ...

Between puffs on his cigarette, Kemal Arsjad pounds out a quick response to one of the hundreds of fresh e-mails on his BlackBerry Bold. On the table in front of him, his second mobile phone, a BlackBerry Pearl, flashes a notice that more messages await.

At the next table, another young Indonesian man surfs the Internet on his BlackBerry. Here in the high-end Pacific Place shopping mall, BlackBerrys abound as Jakarta's young and connected sip their iced cappuccinos on a weekday afternoon. Only one Apple iPhone is in sight - and its owner also has a BlackBerry Bold on the table before him.

While Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. has struggled to make major inroads in China, Japan and other parts of East Asia, its BlackBerry phones are a runaway success in Indonesia. The world's fourth-largest country - population 240 million - is also one of the hottest mobile phone markets.

RIM has sold 1.2 million BlackBerrys in Indonesia - many times more than the combined number of iPhones and Google Androids, according to Nanda Ivens, director of IndoPacific Edelman, which was hired by RIM to handle its social-media promotions in the region.

Several million Chinese-made BlackBerry knockoffs - known as "Chinaberries" - are also in use here, openly sold at markets alongside legitimately produced BlackBerrys (which are often smuggled into the country to avoid taxes).

A number of factors play into BlackBerry's success in Indonesia, most notably the expensive, yet patchy, broadband service in this equator-straddling archipelago. This problematic access drives many Indonesians to use their mobile phones to access the Internet, not laptops or computers.

Another key to BlackBerry's success with Indonesians is the issuing of prepaid scratch cards that allow users to pay a set amount for data and e-mail service each week or month. (It's the same payment method most Indonesians use with other mobile phones: Once scratched, the card reveals a number the owner uses to activate the account.)

"You cannot implement RIM's campaign for the rest of the world here in Indonesia. We're different," said Mr. Arsjad, a software developer. "They changed their strategy for Indonesia."

The gregarious 33-year-old has been a big part of that strategy, designing dozens of applications specifically for BlackBerry users in Indonesia, including a national Yellow Pages directory, local chat services and applications that allow users to order from the menus of restaurants in Jakarta and elsewhere in the country.

In addition to being user-friendly, RIM got into the Indonesian market ahead of competitors. "Indonesia is one of the brighter spots for RIM in the Asia-Pacific region," said Kevin Restivo, a Toronto-based analyst at research firm IDC. "The vendor has shipped BlackBerrys to the country since 2005, four years ahead of Apple, one of its primary smart phone competitors on this side of the world."

Mr. Restivo said that while Apple's touch-screen phones have proven more popular in markets such as South Korea, Indonesians prefer the QWERTY keyboards most BlackBerry models use. Partially as a result, Nokia is BlackBerry's main competitor in Indonesia, he said.

"In other [Asian]markets, BlackBerry is for business, and the iPhone is the thing to have," Mr. Ivens said. "But over here, the BlackBerry is the thing to have and iPhone is only for Apple addict."

Jakarta residents say BlackBerry first took off among Indonesia's business class with the 2006 launch of the BlackBerry Bold. Quickly, a sore thumb and a BlackBerry on your hip became symbols that you'd made it in Indonesia.

"It's a deal with the devil, because once you have a BlackBerry you can never escape your e-mails," said Wimar Witoelar, a well-known political analyst and self-confessed BlackBerry addict who was a spokesman for former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. "But with a BlackBerry, you are a somebody."

Laughing, Mr. Witoelar confessed: "I sleep with it on my pillow."

(As he speaks, two of his colleagues pound away on their own BlackBerrys with a speed that would impress the fastest-thumbed Canadian. One posts Mr. Witoelar's comments on Twitter, while the other tweets about how foreigners seem to be fascinated by Indonesians' addiction to their BlackBerrys.)

The only downside to RIM's success is that it has inspired a host of Chinaberry knockoffs. Phone sellers in Jakarta estimate that for every legitimate BlackBerry they sell, they move many times more Chinaberries.

"Chinese companies make phones that look just like BlackBerry and sell 10 times as fast," said Mulyadi Setiakusuma, general manager for distribution at the Sellular Shop retail chain.

The reason is simple, he said: Knockoffs sell for less than $100, while a new BlackBerry Bold costs roughly $500.

For many Indonesians, however, only the real thing will do. Mr. Arsjad, the software developer, said a course called "Java for Blackberries" will be added to the curriculums at five Indonesian universities this year.

"There's only one other place where they have that," he laughed. "In Canada."

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 
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