With over five years of experience in the Indian market, Research In Motion Ltd (RIM) wants to popularize its BlackBerry phones from the boardroom to the classroom, and capturing everyone in between. Frenny Bawa, managing director, India, spoke in an interview about why the Canadian firm is optimistic about the market, what its 11,000 application developers are working on, and the dispute over access with the government. Edited excerpts.
What agreement has RIM reached with the government regarding intercepts? Does it compromise the secured communication channels that BlackBerry users have come to expect from RIM?
We operate in nearly 200 countries globally. We respect the laws of each one of those countries and we certainly respect and understand the national security concerns that India has.
Just like we work with other governments around the world, we are working with Indian officials and we don’t disclose the details of the talks. Suffice it to say that we are quite bullish that the outcome will be positive.
What are your expectations in India for the new BlackBerry Torch?
Getting inclusive: The company wants to popularize its BlackBerry phones from the boardroom to the classroom,capturing everyone in between. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
We’re very encouraged by the reception we have got from our partners in India.
About a year ago, BlackBerry was ostensibly available in four or five cities in all of India. In a year’s time frame, it’s available in over 75 cities. And from tens or hundreds of points of presence, we are now at thousands of points of presence.
So, if you gauge the intensity with which we have expanded here, (that) should give you some indication also of the traction we have got in the Indian market.
About 52% of RIM’s sales is outside of North America. Where does India figure?
Let me just say that India’s share in that 52% is continually growing.
It is certainly a market of great interest for RIM and I think the fanfare with which we did the Torch launch shows our commitment.
Is the latest effort to break out of the serious business user’s phone image working for BlackBerry?
There’s no question that our heritage is from the enterprise space, which is still a key, important segment for us. But of the 50 million or so subscribers that we have globally, now about half are from the consumer space. If I bring that to India, I can tell you that the growth that we’ve seen since we launched BlackBerry in the open market through our relationship with (distributor) Redington in the consumer segment has been phenomenal. We shifted from the enterprise-led consumer to, the prosumer—the professional consumer—segment, which had been growing.
But with the ubiquity of the availability, the BlackBerry, the launch of our entry-level Curve 8520, the launch of BIS (BlackBerry Internet service) Lite, and now the launch of prepaid services, has made BlackBerry the phone of choice for consumers starting at age 10 to the college campus to mums who are organizing play dates for their children, to families who are dispersed globally who use BlackBerry Messenger to keep in touch with each other.
So when I hear stories from people, that “my 10-year-old son says his life would end because everybody who is anybody at school uses BlackBerry messenger to communicate”, of course that is music to my ears! It is exciting when I hear from a school that in a particular class everybody uses BlackBerry, that the teacher and the students discuss their assignments on BlackBerry! So, when we launched the 8520, we had an expectation that we would see greater interest from the youth segment and I can tell you that my expectations have been far surpassed. It’s been more significant than we expected, and the key drivers are obviously affordability, availability, approachability, relevance, BlackBerry Messenger, the right (mobile service) plans—97% of Indian subscribers are prepaid users. Till recently, when some of our partners launched prepaid plans, we were playing only in 3% of the market, and of course the right colours (smiles). We will definitely have our ear to the ground to see how we can bring this aspirational product to a larger segment of the Indian population.
How serious is the competition from rival platforms such as Android and Windows 7?
In any type of business, when you have a market that is growing at the rate the smartphone market is growing, it attracts new entrants. It’s actually good for the consumer and good all around…it brings more attention to the space, expands the space and it certainly keeps us on our toes from a competitive perspective, we have to keep innovating.
RIM’s rivals had a head start in creating robust communities around app stores. What’s BlackBerry doing to bridge that gap?
We have 11,000 application developers from India and they are developing apps not just for India but for RIM globally. When we launched App World in India, we did not want apps that were relevant just for North American or West European users. We were very specific about ensuring that there were relevant apps like Hungama, CNBC and a number of others. And that number is growing by the day. Our direction for the application space is, yes, we want more applications because that’s what will allow us to be more relevant to Indian consumers. But we are not going to get into the numbers game about how many (apps) do we have versus somebody else. My interest is to leverage the 11,000-plus app developers here to develop applications that are most relevant to our consumers.
RIM is getting into different form factor devices such as Playbook. Any other such devices that we can expect from BlackBerry, perhaps a flip phone known as the Oxford?
We’re very excited about the Playbook and the response is very positive. It will be launched in the US in early first part of FY11. One of my missions as the managing director for India operations is to reduce the gap between the first launch and the Indian launch, days or weeks and not months.
And the flip phone?
We don’t disclose product details before we are ready to launch the product. But we are undoubtedly committed to continuing to innovate to bring new products to India.
You said the 8520 was developed with emerging markets like India in mind. Anything new in the pipeline?
We recently had a person travel around India to figure out our localization strategy, what languages do we need to launch and in which priority. We’re serious. So localization is on our roadmap. Similarly, there are—and I won’t be specific about it—certain features and functions that India users look for and haven’t been available on the BlackBerry.
It is all about business, right? The more relevant a particular market becomes for a manufacturer, the more attention you are going to get.