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Fall of BlackBerry set to come to region where it was once a leader

  |  January 1, 2014

As most people are coming up with resolutions they will never keep, I have decided on one that I will most probably see through. Not out of self-will, but out of necessity. I am giving up my BlackBerry Z10 phone. It has developed a terrible habit of dying every time it is knocked with force. It did have the decency to restart itself, but it doesn't even do that now.

Besides, BlackBerrys have become utterly useless in the UAE. The things that make it unique are all banned and now that BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is available on iPhone and Android phones, you can enjoy the best of BlackBerry on a better device.

This was not always the case for the Canadian manufacturer. Its progressive and secure messaging platforms, namely BBM, have become the bugbear of many regulators and telcos, but the UAE has taken very fervent steps to disable many of the unique functions.

When BlackBerry incorporated voice and video into BBM last year, Etisalat and du responded by immediately removing the two functions.

The latest is BBM Channels, a social networking tool that is integrated with the messenger. It was available on launch, but has since been blocked by the TRA on the grounds that it does not conform to the country's social and moral values. A seemingly odd reason since the content on Channels was hardly more salacious or outrageous than that found on Facebook or Twitter.

Instant Messaging tools like Whatsapp have already eaten into revenues generated from SMS and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) services like Skype and Viber are seen as threats to revenues from international calls. The former is available over wifi, the latter is blocked altogether. Apple products bought here have Facetime blocked.

The lack of competition in the UAE's duopoly telecoms market is concerning, particularly after Dubai's Expo2020 win. Telecoms services in the UAE are among the most costly in the region. The rest of the GCC, notably Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia enjoy highly competitive markets with three operators each and even mobile virtual network operators (MVNO).

But Etisalat and du are still operating in an antiquated world, maintaining their dominance while conducting the barest levels of competition. The overall economic benefits of cheap and open telecoms services have been well documented by the likes of UN and the World Bank, but here it is the profits of the two operators that take precedence and the TRA arguably could do more to increase the pace of competition in the sector.

Which brings us back to Blackberry. While there are ways around some of the blocks; you can download Viber outside the UAE and it will work perfectly well here, the same for Tango but a BlackBerry device is now comparatively useless. Users here do not get to enjoy any of the new offerings available to customers elsewhere.

The BBM platform is BlackBerry's most enticing tool, so much so that there are still rumours it may spin BBM off into a separate company. It launched BBM on Android and iPhone devices a few months ago and in the first week alone managed to rake in 20 million downloads.

BlackBerry still enjoys a 10 per cent market share in the region, but its sales are diminishing pretty quickly.