Unintended Consequences and the Success of Blackberry in the Middle East

I’m attending ArabNet currently, which is a large web conference taking place in Beirut. I’m speaking tomorrow, so if you’re here too let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to cover – and come and say hello.

One of the interesting aspects of the region is the huge success of Blackberry over and above other mobiles. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one of the important anecdotal causes seems to be driven by societal mores.

Firstly, like many parts of the world, sms usage really exploded historically. So when a mobile comes with a great keyboard for inputting text, it’s interesting. More interesting though is the free messaging system it comes with, which is radically going to reduce your sms spending. And as more and more of your friends get their own Blackberry and can use BiM, the proposition gets very compelling indeed. It’s the first-fax syndrome. In the early days, a fax machine is pretty useless as you can’t send a fax as there’s no one you can send one to. Equally, there’s no one available of putting you in danger of receiving one. But as more and more companies and individuals own one, the stronger the argument for getting one becomes. Until you get to the stage where you can’t operate without one (even though today there are other options).

I think we can certainly credit RIM with a deliberate strategy up to this point – that BiM was a thought-through product and that in the longer term, it would explode as network effects clicked in. But what happens next is a great example of the law of unintended consequences.

While different countries in the Middle East have varying norms when it comes to mixing between the genders, we can generalise and say that things are stricter than we’re used to in the West. In a country like Saudi Arabia, as an example, this segregation is so strict that it’s actually enforced by a religious policeforce. Indeed, only last month a prominent cleric called for those who oppose segregation to be executed, so it’s not a trivial issue.

Initially, people wishing to circumvent these laws led to an explosion of Bluetooth messaging and sms. But the problem with these communication platforms are that the authorities can (and do) trace them back to the phone and thus, the person.

When you purchase a Blackberry however, it comes with your own PIN. But the thing is, the PIN isn’t linked to your phone in any way. Making it the perfect clandestine messaging platform and thus ideal for some illicit flirting or arranging meet-ups for those so inclined.

Another unintended consequence is the little business it’s generated for dealers in Blackberries – or their opportunistic staff. The PIN is an eight number code and it’s therefore logical that a super-memorable PIN, such as 11111111 is going to be more useful that a random one like 74293661. As Blackerry ownership has taken off, useful PINs morphed into cool PINs and thus a highly lucrative premium market has developed, generating significant profits in the grey market.

So RIM are certainly to be congratulated for their long term vision behind the BiM. But I’m sure they could never have anticipated being helped so significantly by such an unexpected following wind.

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