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Dutt says building its retail and service infrastructure has been a focus area for BlackBerry in preparation for the launch of its new platform. Photo: Hemant Mishra/mint
Dutt says building its retail and service infrastructure has been a focus area for BlackBerry in preparation for the launch of its new platform. Photo: Hemant Mishra/mint

Sunil Dutt | The plot to make BB king

The India MD on the original smartphone's big attempt to become a leader once again

BlackBerry, formerly Research In Motion (RIM), has a big year lined up, with a complete reinvention of the brand’s offerings which could help revive its flagging value in a market dominated by relative newcomers like Apple and Google. Sunil Dutt, the firm’s 51-year-old managing director for India and the man in charge of building the business here, is predictably busy these days—the India launch of their new flagship phone, the BlackBerry Z10, is on Monday.

Following the global announcement of the Z10 on 30 January, Dutt says the excitement about the new device is at an all-time high. He didn’t share details on the price, but analysts say the phone will be sold for under 40,000.

He says, “When I meet people at parties, they know that I have it (the Z10) and some of my friends demand to see it even before they say hello!" Dutt sounds proud, and he has reason to be—this is the most exciting BlackBerry model in a long time, and makes some positive strides even when compared with devices from other companies.

We’re sitting in the balcony of Dutt’s 18th floor office in Gurgaon, and the view is lovely. From here, Gurgaon’s chaos and construction resembles a colourful Lego set. A staffer brings us a freshly brewed pot of tea while Dutt takes me through the changes that have taken place at BlackBerry in the run-up to the launch of BB10 and BlackBerry Z10.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

“There’s been a strong focus on our visibility on the ground," he says. “We’ve moved from 80 towns to 250 in one year, from having a presence in 3,500 outlets to 5,000, and we’re also building more exclusive outlets. Our service network has also gotten a big shot in the arm—we added 100 service centres across 80 cities.

“We’ve also been building up the app economy," he says. “From 4,000 developers, we’ve gone to 40,000 people making apps for BlackBerry in the last one year, and we’re trying to get a lot of India-specific content along with apps for enterprise and apps for government." Aside from these key areas, a lot of BlackBerry’s focus here will be on promoting the brand through marketing and communications activities, he says.

Dutt, who did his MBA from Panjab University, worked with Nokia from 2002, at a point when the mobile revolution was kicking off. In 2007, he moved to Samsung as the country head at a time when the company saw its revenue rise 400%. Two years later, he moved to Hewlett-Packard, and after another two years, he joined BlackBerry (then RIM). Although he’s spent a lot of time in the mobile phone industry, his career started with home appliance company Whirlpool, and he spent a year with coffee café chain Barista before joining Nokia.

His Nokia and Samsung stints came at a time when the firms were introducing the new technologies that helped redefine them—BlackBerry is at a similar juncture and Dutt is confident that with the added infrastructure, the smartphone brand should see a similar revival.

Part of this is because he sees the company reaching beyond its traditional market of enterprise users. “The Curve series offers superb value and you see a lot of youngsters using them. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is a big draw and nobody is able to offer that kind of robust and efficient experience even now," Dutt says. “When younger people use the phone, they become brand ambassadors because their friends want to be on BBM with them."

This youth-led market is important for BlackBerry. While the company’s loyalists are older corporate executives, its more affordable Curve line has already seen BlackBerry courting a younger audience. The new Z10 also has features and user-experience upgrades which should help appeal to a younger audience, and compete with the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S3.

Dutt’s household too is made up of BBM users—not out of deference to his job, he says with a smile. “We’re a close-knit family, and we use messaging a lot—my wife Shamma, daughters Aakshi and Aaina (15 and 18, respectively) and I are always in touch. The BlackBerry is a great phone to have—I have been using one for long before I joined the company, my wife and daughters also love their handsets."

But for people who have been holding on to BlackBerry handsets because they didn’t want to switch to something new, like Android or iOS, the Z10 presents a bit of a problem—with a completely reimagined interface, the device comes with a stiff learning curve that might put off the brand loyalists Dutt speaks of.

He doesn’t agree though: “It’s the customer’s voice we are responding to. BB10 is different, but we’re keeping the keyboard model as well, and keeping the best things we could. I see it as the evolution of navigation—from a joystick to a trackball to the optical track pad to the touch screen, BlackBerry has always been about giving users the best navigation experience."

IN PARENTHESIS: While getting BlackBerry back on track as the premium smartphone brand takes a lot of his time, Dutt’s top priority remains his family, his wife Shamma, who’s a homemaker, his elder daughter Aaina, who is now studying in Cardiff, UK, and his younger daughter Aakshi, who’s getting ready for the class 10 exams this year. Dutt says his two daughters are still the top priority. “We talk a lot, and really enjoy watching movies together. We like old movies. With his elder daughter he has always been responsible for waking her up, to make sure she’s up in time to study. He says, “Her phone has a good alarm, but she’s always had her mother or me wake her up, and even now, if we’re not in the same country, we call her to wake her up. It’s a little ritual but an important one for me.

That’s also why BlackBerry has been working hard with local app developers. But while he agrees that a large ecosystem of applications is important to help the phone reach the maximum number of users, he feels the media focuses too much on raw numbers.

He says, “When you see reports of 700,000 apps, what does that even mean to users? The majority are entertainment, used for one week and then either deleted or never started again. How does that add value?

“I have around five-six apps that I use regularly, and less than 20 all told on my phone, and I believe that most people are the same," Dutt says. His top apps are Dhingana, Zomato, BlackBerry Travel, Documents to Go and BBM. He adds: “Most people don’t have hundreds of apps—every city that I go to, I stop at the first Barista I can see, and talk to people after placing my order. I don’t tell them that I’m with BlackBerry. I just compliment them on their phone and then ask a few questions. Most people tell me they’re using a dozen or fewer apps. That’s why I believe that it’s more important to focus on giving the best experience out of the box."

These ground-level assessments at retail locations have convinced Dutt that BlackBerry is on the right track, and while some are raising eyebrows at the price, company research suggests that this is the right place for a premium, aspirational product such as the Z10.

But if the company has gotten even a few facts wrong, it may be looking at another disaster like the PlayBook—and that might be more than it can recover from

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