I just got off the phone with my friend Ted, a former expat who has lived in South Korea for a couple years and he gave me an update of what it was like owning a BlackBerry in the country. South Korea is an interesting market – known as one of the more protectionist, yet tech savvy countries, Koreans love mobile culture and BlackBerry has been a tremendous success in the region. Ted got his first BlackBerry in August of 2009, owned one right up to a Bold 9700 in August of 2010, and he has a few interesting anecdotes about the state of BlackBerry in Korea.
While we don’t have specific numbers on unit sales, from a purely observational standpoint, BlackBerry blew up in South Korea shortly after launch. You can always find a young Korean in a nightclub with a BlackBerry in hand these days, and the form factor seems to be a big hit with both male and female demographics. According to Ted, “it’s all about the form factor”; so much so that the feature set isn’t of much importance. Koreans were willing to give up some of their most prized mobile phone features, such as DMB, in order to own a BlackBerry.
Just like North America, much of BlackBerry’s success in South Korea can be attributed to BBM. Instant messaging is very popular in Korea, and the fact that BlackBerry came with an IM client that acted like an exclusive club for your friends was a hit with the country’s youth. According to Ted, Koreans aren’t really interested in email, which you would think would spell doom for the BlackBerry brand. Most mobile interactions are through SMS, and since the QWERTY keyboard worked well with Hangul (Korean language), the BlackBerry fit nicely into the local mobile culture. Of course, there were a few setbacks. Apparently, early adopters found it difficult to receive messages from their carrier, because they were sent in a form, possibly MMS, that didn’t work well with the OS the device shipped with. These kinks were worked out and the device sales kept trucking.
Around March of 2010, BlackBerry App World launched in South Korea. Ted says that while there were a ton of apps available for other platforms, the BlackBerry offerings were pretty sparse. One of the few apps available included the free Korean Subway Maps app, which was decent but nothing spectacular. While we don’t want to speculate on why the Korean developer community was lacking, it’s worth noting that many users weren’t signing up for data plans. Again, we don’t have any concrete data, and this is purely from observation and meeting other BlackBerry users. Perhaps with all the latest announcements of new ways that developers can port their apps to BlackBerry, some of that iPhone and Android love will spill over to the BlackBerry Platform.
It looks like if RIM is going to continue to succeed in Korea, it should consider some region-specific updates to their devices. It would be awesome to see a DMB-enabled BlackBerry, as well as an official Cyworld app for BlackBerry (the Facebook of Korea). With a little more region-specific focus, RIM could see an even greater boost in their sales. It may also generate some buzz in the developer community and boost the number of companies writing apps for the platform.