The curious case of BlackBerry subscriber growth

BlackBerry Subscriber and WhatsApp

Today RIM (RIMMpreviewed the company’s new operating system, which has some eerie parallels with MeeGo. But the biggest splash was made by the company announcement of hitting 80 million subscribers, up 2 million in three months. The RIM’s stock price quickly spiked at 12:00 p.m. and kept its upward momentum even as the NASDAQ started drooping.

What’s the big deal about adding 2 million new subscribers? The answer is in Wall Street psychology. Witnessing the devastation of RIM’s North American market share, many analysts started expecting that the BlackBerry subscriber base might start shrinking already in 2011. Before the spring quarter results came out, most expected decline to begin during the May quarter. Then consensus expectation shifted for a flat or declining subscriber base in August quarter.Yet time and again, the moribund Canadian moose has defied the odds and still staggers ahead on wobbly hooves. Adding 2 million new subs during the August quarter is nothing to sneer at — that’s more than 10% annualized growth. Of course, this is below global smartphone user base growth, and BlackBerry volume sales in North America are now collapsing at something like 70-80% year-on-year rate. It’s still spooky that RIM is still able to cling to almost decent subscriber growth globally.

How does the company manage this? South Africa. Nigeria. Malaysia. Indonesia. Major mobile markets where most consumers pay the full price for their phones and cannot afford to spend much more than $2 per month on mobile data. Markets where even the iPhone 3GS is simply too expensive for the middle class.

RIM’s big weapon in these countries is BlackBerry Messenger, a messaging service that is hitting 25% urban market penetration in places like South Africa. And RIM’s lethal enemy is not Apple, it’s WhatsApp. Over the past six months, this ubiquitous messaging app has vaulted to the #1 app position in RIM strongholds like South Africa, Nigeria and Malaysia. It gives the cheapest Huawei or Spice Android phone messaging capabilities on par or above BBM.

Ironically, what may finally doom the Canadian company is not Apple’s swagger in Los Angeles and Berlin. It may turn out to be a tiny messaging app patiently gnawing at RIM’s last lifeline in Africa and South-East Asia.

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