The BlackBerry smartphone has seen incredible growth in South Africa over the past few years, beating other smartphones to quickly gain the lion’s share of the market. While this extraordinary growth is to be praised, the many corporate and consumer BlackBerry users in the country may be facing a serious problem in the near future.
The disproportionately high number of BlackBerry users in South Africa all rely on the centralised network infrastructure provided by RIM, the manufacturer of the BlackBerry hardware and software. This global infrastructure enables BlackBerry users to send and receive e-mail, surf the Web, chat via BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) and make use of the BlackBerry App World.
It is also provides a secure environment to protect these conversations, an important consideration for corporations needing to ensure their corporate communications are protected from unauthorised users. This may be the greatest strength of the BlackBerry platform.
But what happens if RIM goes out of business? A few months ago BlackBerry users had a taste of exactly what would happen when RIM experienced a global outage of its infrastructure. All communications via BlackBerry devices came to a sudden halt for a few days and there was nothing anyone could do about it. After a protracted silence, RIM eventually apologised and made its excuses, but its customers had found out the hard way how dependent they were on the manufacturer’s centralised infrastructure.
Given the much publicised financial problems RIM has been through, including the recent announcement that it is to retrench 2000 staff members, this dependence should be a cause for concern.
When BlackBerry’s problems initially became public knowledge, the industry view was that the company would be a simple target for acquisition. It had a large global customer base, good technology and was clearly the most secure smartphone platform around.
However, after waiting for the news of a buyer for some time and seeing RIM’s woes continue, it has become clear that none of the potential buyers actually see value in the platform. The simple fact is nobody wants to buy RIM and the once vaunted BlackBerry platform is not as valuable as it once was.
In the normal flow of business this would not be a problem, companies appear and disappear all the time. And unlike Nokia’s Symbian platform, which does not require any specific infrastructure to run, meaning users are able to continue using their devices no matter what happens to Nokia, BlackBerry users are out of luck. If RIM stops supporting its central infrastructure, the smart will go out of the BlackBerry smartphones.
The bottom line is simply that once RIM can’t support its global infrastructure or if it declares bankruptcy at some time in the future, the services BlackBerry users have become used to will stop working. And since these devices run on RIM’s proprietary architecture, users can’t simply switch to another service provider, they need to get a new smartphone device and start from scratch.
When looking at the corporate market, the problem is exacerbated across a distributed environment and multiple users. Apart from the costs of migrating to a new platform, the risks to corporate data and communications will also be increased, at least in the short term.
RIM’s demise will not happen tomorrow, but companies looking at a standard mobile platform for its staff would do well to pay attention to the potential risks associated with the BlackBerry platform. For those businesses developing applications for the mobile market, perhaps rethinking the allocation of costs and resources dedicated to BlackBerry application development is in order.
Peter Scheffel, CTO, BBD