Why BlackBerry lost its cool-factor in South Africa

In the halcyon days of 2013, one could still find articles with headlines like “BlackBerry overtakes Samsung in SA: research” on South African news sites.

While the rest of the world had abandoned the Canadian smartphone maker in favour of Apple’s iPhone and devices running Google’s Android platform, many South Africans stuck with and switched to BlackBerry.

Year after year the stats also showed there were plenty of people in South Africa who wanted a BlackBerry for their next smartphone.

It was named as the coolest phone brand among SA youth for three years in a row from 2011 to 2013, with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) rated as the coolest app.

Then it began to change, with results from surveys showing that BlackBerry was no longer the darling of the South African consumer.

Some have attributed BlackBerry’s continued success and sudden decline to the fact that WhatsApp overtook BBM as the most popular mobile messaging service in South Africa.

However, WhatsApp overtaking BBM is just part of the story.

BMI-T DLP most popular smartphone
BMI-T DLP most popular smartphone 2015

Why BlackBerry ruled South Africa

To figure out why BlackBerry lost its groove in South Africa, you first have to understand why it did so well to begin with.

Three elements of the BlackBerry experience stood out as major draw cards:

  1. BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS)
  2. BlackBerry Messenger
  3. The BlackBerry 8520

With BIS, Research in Motion (now BlackBerry) managed to broker a deal for its Internet package that became fantastic value for money.

It offered subscribers unlimited on-device Internet for a flat rate of R59 per month, while users on other platforms had to buy capped data bundles from mobile operators at much higher rates.

Combined with BBM, this offered BlackBerry users a cheaper alternative to normal mobile data bundles and SMS messaging.

The last, but vitally-important, piece of the BlackBerry value puzzle was the BlackBerry 8520 – which launched in South Africa on 9 September 2009.

While limited to 2G mobile data connectivity, it was an affordable option when compared to the Symbian, Windows Mobile, iPhone, and Android devices available at the time.

It continued to be affordable well into the decline of Symbian and demise of Windows Mobile in South Africa.

BlackBerry Curve 8520
BlackBerry Curve 8520

So, what happened?

BlackBerry’s slide to second place and beyond was brought about by several issues, along with numerous changes in the smartphone landscape.

BIS broke. Some apps didn’t use BIS properly and resulted in subscribers being billed R2/MB for ad-hoc data usage.

Some users found ways to use BIS to pirate movies and TV shows, contributing to congestion on South African BlackBerry networks. BlackBerry also saw significant BIS outages in 2011 and 2012.

Cheaper Android smartphones launched. As Android matured, more affordable devices launched at prices that were equal to or less than the BlackBerry 8520.

BlackBerry OS was stuck in limbo. The old BlackBerry platform (BB7 OS) did not age well. Users complained about having to “battery pull” to reboot the phone daily.

Many app installations and updates required you to soft reboot the phone, and booting the phone took ages. App support was also often lacking.

BlackBerry 10 solved many of these issues, but BB10 devices don’t have uncapped BIS – and the new operating system was launched very late in the smartphone wars.

Cheaper mobile data. While many operators still don’t offer data at prices that could compete with BIS, data prices in SA came down enough to make people weigh the higher cost of data against the prospect of a better-supported, more modern platform.

WhatsApp. It is difficult to say whether the rise of WhatsApp contributed to the fall of BlackBerry in South Africa, or whether it was just a symptom of the company’s failing fortunes.

The bottom line is that BBM was not the only game in town, and thanks to apps like WhatsApp, people were free to adopt non-BlackBerry smartphones without losing out on cheap mobile instant messaging.

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Why BlackBerry lost its cool-factor in South Africa