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BlackBerry’s secret weapon

Published Sep 24th, 2014 2:35PM EDT
BlackBerry Passport BBM Analysis

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The new BlackBerry Passport has received some notably snarky, even sneering reviews in the United States media. The Wall Street Journal plastered a square of American cheese on top of its display to demonstrate its size. Mashable branded the square build and relatively thin keypad design downright bizarre. But interestingly enough, BlackBerry’s share price ticked up another 2.5% the device’s launch day and it has now doubled from the dark days of December 2013.

For some reason, investors are getting increasingly excited about the company, even as the latest smartphone gets a bewildered critical response. The price of the device is close to $6oo without contract, so this is not exactly a natural fit with BlackBerry’s loyal core audience in Africa and Southeast Asia.

But a model called the Z3 may actually be selling decently on those markets. It has not garnered any interest in the Western tech media and as a matter of fact it will not even be distributed in former affluent BlackBerry strongholds like the United Kingdom. But the Z3 is priced at around $260 and has been getting solid traction in Indonesia, the new engine of South Asian mobile market.

BlackBerry’s global smartphone market share has collapsed below 1% and is unlikely to recover. But a moderately budget model designed to be manufactured cheaply might be able to bring the hardware unit to break-even point if it connects with middle class buyers of Africa, the Middle East and South East. And that would buy BlackBerry time.

Time for what, exactly? Well, possibly for figuring out the way to monetize its messenger app effectively. In some sense, BBM has emerged as the secret weapon of BlackBerry. Despite losing its grip on US and Western markets after some initial traction, BBM continues to do surprisingly well in emerging markets.

Today, BBM remains the No. 1 iPhone app in Indonesia and Nigeria, pivotal mobile markets of South East Asia and Africa — and that’s No. 1 among all apps, not just in the Social Media category. The Indonesian success is nothing short of dazzling: BBM is beating other Top 10 apps such as LINE, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in this country of 250 million people.

Even more importantly, BBM has recently popped into top 20 iPhone revenue charts of those two countries. BlackBerry has finally started demonstrating it can actually begin to make money with its messenger app. This was very much a question mark just a few months ago after BBM vaulted from No. 300 to No. 10 on the Indonesian iPhone sales chart between June and August.

As of today, BBM is a top 10 social media app in 32 countries, including the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. BBM’s global download momentum combined with its recently emerged revenue-generating moxie mean that it might be consolidating its position as a serious B-level messaging app.

That could mean hitting 200 million active monthly users over the next couple of years. This could make BBM a serious global app power. The competition among messaging apps is brutal, but so far BlackBerry is holding its own. In the long term, the sarcastic reviews of the Passport may turn out to be little more than background noise as the company pivots toward the software market.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.