At a conference in Amsterdam and a launch in South Africa last week, BlackBerry and Nokia respectively revealed that they would remain a formidable force in Africa, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
Africa is an unlikely high-tech battleground for the future of the smartphone market.
While most Western markets are locked in a fight between Apple’s iPhone on the one side and a range of brands using the Android operating system (OS) on the other, the picture across the African continent is entirely different.
It is a market dominated by Nokia, but in which BlackBerry has become the aspirational phone of choice for the tiny elite at the top of the economic pile. In South Africa itself, BlackBerry has broken out into the mass market, to become the biggest smartphone brand and second biggest overall.
Yet, in Western markets, both of these brands were having their obituaries written at various times during 2011. Nokia had announced it was ditching its Symbian OS in favour of Microsoft’s Windows Phone, and BlackBerry’s entry into the tablet market, the PlayBook, was all but dead on arrival as it failed to meet user needs.
Now, the most unlikely pair of revivals are under way. This week, Nokia released the first of its new Windows Phone-based devices in South Africa. Physically, the Lumia 800 looks almost exactly like the Nokia N9, which was released to wild acclaim late last-year, but which uses a once-off OS that Nokia does not intend to maintain.
The key difference, aside from a range of new colour options, lies in the way the devices are being sold: a Vodacom contract on the Lumia costs R279, compared to R299 for the N9, and includes 100MB of data per month for 24 months, compared to the N9’s three month data allowance. The pricing sends a clear message: Nokia wants customers to come on over.
The Windows Phone OS will initially be unfamiliar to most Nokia loyalists, but it will grow on them – especially when they discover a mobile version of Micosoft Office on the device, enabling a surprisingly extensive range of Word and Excel functions. If that’s not enough, the sharp, vibrantly bright screen uses a cutting edge screen technology called AMOLED. The phone is beautiful to the eyes and the touch.
Several Lumia models will follow, at various price points, along with a low-cost Nokia range called the Asha – Hindi for “hope”.
The hope is, of course, that it will give the massive Nokia user base throughout the developing world a reason to stay with the brand. The Lumia, on the other hand, is designed to give smartphone users a reason to go back to Nokia. Between the two, they signal the rebirth of the world’s most powerful phone brand outside North America.
A similar resurrection is under way at BlackBerry and its manufacturer, RIM, which has been entirely written off by American analysts. This week, RIM chose Europe to herald its comeback. New CEO Thorsten Heins delivered his debut address at DevCon Europe, BlackBerry’s developer conference in Amsterdam.
While he did not make dramatic announcements, he reminded the audience that BlackBerry was still the number one smartphone brand in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
He also led a string of RIM executives through demonstrations of the capabilities of the new OS, BlackBerry 10, which is expected to allow BlackBerry to compete with the functionality of Android and Apple phones for the first time. The most important of these demos, arguably, was of the PlayBook 2.0 tablet computer, which provides a foretaste of the BlackBerry 10 experience.
Not only does it repair the damage of the first PlayBook by including e-mail on the device, but it takes it to new levels by providing a rich range of messaging and contact options, along with performance improvements. The much-maligned Bridge, which previously was used to connect to a phone’s e-mail, now becomes a remote control tool between the two devices.
The PlayBook 2.0 will be released this month, and BlackBerry 10 phones will appear later in the year.
That may be just in time to catch the wave of South African BlackBerry users who began embracing the phone from late 2010, and who would otherwise be falling to the allure of Android and Windows Phone when their upgrades are due.