No Longer Forbidden Fruit

Bloomberg
What is in a name? "An awful lot," BlackBerry's Russian fans and foes would tell you.

In a country where handset owners love and hate gadgets with a passion, little wonder that a device as innocuous as BlackBerry can still spark off large controversies.

First introduced in 1998 as a wireless handheld computer by Canada's Research In Motion, or RIM, BlackBerry instantaneously became a darling for road warriors and business executives.

The addictive allure of the handheld device has always hinged on providing security and confidentiality plus a slew of features indispensable for enterprising executives always on the move.

The device, once famed primarily for its secure push e-mail, now gives adherents easy access to audio and video services, text messaging, Internet, organizer and corporate data applications.

"BlackBerry is a status symbol for any self-respecting businessman," said Mikhail Umarov, director of communications at VimpelCom, Russia's No. 2 mobile operator. "Armed with one, you are living a real life in real time."

Umarov envisioned a time when a Russian business executive running late for a board meeting or held hostage by Moscow's notorious gridlock could pick up his BlackBerry smartphone and thumb away a secret memo to business partners.

However, despite the BlackBerry smartphone becoming a must-have for corporate executives worldwide -- there were 10 million subscribers in October -- its debut in Russia has been stuck in the realm of dreams.

Mobile TeleSystems, Russia's largest mobile operator that was licensed by RIM in 2005 to launch BlackBerry in Russia, has been mired in a seemingly everlasting process of obtaining permission for the venture to take off.


Ryan Anson / Bloomberg
An AT&T Tilt mobile phone -- considered to be an alternative to BlackBerry -- with its GPS Navigator shown on the screen.
When the company and VimpelCom finally got a nod last week, on Nov. 27, it was for a one-year-long experimental license to import 1,000 handsets each.

VimpelCom has also been nursing plans to launch BlackBerry wireless services in Russia, even as it dabbled in various competing projects.

In September 2005, VimpelCom launched Russia's first push e-mail solution called Mobile Email, which is everything BlackBerry but the name.

Powered by Seven, a California-based e-mail software company, Mobile Email delivers e-mail, attachments and calendar information to PDAs and smartphones in real-time, while simultaneously mirroring all changes to the corporate server.

Early this year, the company flirted with the idea of launching a BlackBerry clone using a custom-made device developed by California-based IXI Mobile, a startup backed by companies such as Intel and Texas Instruments.

The clamshell-like device, called Ogo, was designed to provide a push e-mail solution, ICQ instant messaging service and RSS support.

"However, the bug in the ointment is that the many clones on the market lack the touch and feel of the BlackBerry model," said VimpelCom's Umarov. "Nothing really comes to mind that comes close."

Most clones also lack BlackBerry's full QWERTY keyboard with keys shaped to minimize mistypes, and a battery life strong enough to withstand round-the-clock connections to the Internet, Umarov said.

Vasily Koval, a telecom analyst at J'Son & Partners, said while there were alternatives such as Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.0, Nokia N-series handsets, AT&T Tilt smartphone, and Motorola's Good Mobile, "nothing compares with the information security provided and guaranteed by RIM.


For MT
Nokia Nseries is another alternative.
"With BlackBerry, Russian itinerant professionals don't have to wade through hundreds of unanswered emails on arrival from corporate assignments," Koval said.

BlackBerry's strongest selling point -- its strong encryption software -- has also been its biggest constraint in Russia.

"If officials of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, demand to see e-mails sent to or from an account, mobile phone operators must hand them over in a readable way," said Eldar Murtazin, editor of the online Mobile Research Group. "There is no workaround for such a legal requirement."

Yury Bader-Bayer, purchasing officer at the Svyaznoi cellular retail chain, stressed the need to demystify BlackBerry to make its debut in Russia less suspicious to the authorities.



But RIM's problematic foray into Russia is also not helped by a New Jersey's Rutgers University report last year that BlackBerry "can be so addictive that owners may need to be weaned off them with treatment similar to that given to drug users."

"By fuelling e-mail obsession and Internet addiction, the device is more of a social allergy than technological blessing," said Pyotr Bankov, art-director at Design Depo, who designs handsets. "The device can distract family life and negate a culture where strong family ties are valued."

But Alexander Voiskunsky, head of psychology at Moscow State University's informatics lab, said talks of e-mail addiction from BlackBerrys "is sheer hypocrisy and technology-envy."

Russians, he said, are no e-mail junkies.

"Until Russians skip kissing and hugging in favor of reading e-mails, they cannot be said to be suffering from the 'always connected syndrome'."