RESEARCH in Motion (RIM) boss Thorsten Heins was in South Africa this week to brief mobile networks on the new BlackBerry phones.
And, he told Arthur Goldstuck in an exclusive interview, to thank South African customers for their loyalty.
South Africa will be a vital cog in the machine RIM is building now to restore BlackBerry's global image early in 2013.
The country's importance to RIM was acknowledged in the most direct fashion by its CEO, Thorsten Heins, when he made a quiet arrival in Johannesburg last week.
He was here to brief local networks on plans for the launch of the new BlackBerry 10 range of phones but, in doing so, also paid tribute to one of RIM's most loyal markets.
"I want to say thank you to the South African customers of BlackBerry – they have created a tremendous success story, and they deserve our thanks and respect," he said in an exclusive interview.
"South Africa is a priority one market for us, and we will acknowledge that with the launch of BlackBerry 10. There will be three waves in taking it to global markets, and South Africa and Nigeria are in the top range of Wave 1 launches.
"We will pay tribute to our customers here by delivering BlackBerry 10 in South Africa when it is launched."
Despite a formal and – when he was first appointed – almost forbidding image during appearances on stage at events, Heins in person is engaging, amiable, honest and open to any questions about RIM.
The most difficult of these is how he expects to turn around the key American market all but lost to BlackBerry. He does not shy away from it.
"The market in the USA was driven by a tectonic shift to full touch screens and to LTE (4G connectivity) in a very short time frame in the enterprise space.
All the money from the carriers is going to 4G. That is why we have lost and are still losing market share.
"There are two routes to recapturing that market. Firstly, we are working on our installed user base. So far the upgrade ratio has increased from 8% to 22% in the last two quarters.
"The second thing is to get BlackBerry 10 into the market and make sure it fulfils all users' requirements, such as the full LTE experience."
LTE, the next generation of high-speed mobile connectivity, is only expected to be available in South Africa in 2013. Most developing markets are still moving from the basic telephony of 2G to 3G, and discovering the high cost of using data.
As a result, the BlackBerry Internet Service, which puts a cap on that cost but not on usage, has been key to the brand's success in these markets.
"In the US, we are clearly a turnaround case. In the rest of the world, we are still growing our overall global subscriber base. Other regions in the world are more than compensating for losses in the USA."
On Tuesday, Heins will deliver a keynote address at the BlackBerry 10 Jam Americas conference in San Jose, where he plans to announce further details of the new devices BlackBerry will launch at the beginning of next year.
Carlo Chiarello, RIM's executive vice-president, smartphone business, who travelled to South Africa with Heins, demonstrated two of the devices that are almost ready for launch to this writer.
One is a touchscreen phone using a new virtual keyboard developed by BlackBerry to learn a user's writing style and predict likely words as the first letter of a word is typed.
The other has a full QWERTY keyboard and, at first glance, will look familiar to users of BlackBerry's Bold and Curve phones.
Heins confirmed that a total of six BlackBerry 10 devices will be launched during the first quarter of next year.
While he would not be drawn on pricing and specifications of the devices, this appears to mirror the current strategy of offering a range of formats at price points that will cover a wide range of smartphone users.
The strategy has been the key to BlackBerry’s success outside the USA, and RIM hopes to replicate that success in the market that is regarded as key to its survival.
"It's a new experience, but it is also a BlackBerry experience, and it is built to appeal to new users as well as to people who know BlackBerry today."
In the coming months, these promises will be unwrapped as BlackBerry prepares to launch not only its new devices, but also a new lease on life.
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*Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. His full interview with Thorsten Heins will appear on Gadget (www.gadget.co.za) on Tuesday. Follow Arthur Goldstuck on Twitter via @art2gee to be kept up to date on the device releases.