RIM's year of expansion rolls on in Asia

Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), the company behind the popular BlackBerry push e-mail service, is counting on an aggressive expansion in Asia to fuel its future growth, a company executive said Friday.

RIM has recently been on a roll in Asia, extending the availability of BlackBerry to major markets, including China, Taiwan and South Korea. And there is more to come. Starting later this year, the service will be available in Japan through a partnership with NTT DoCoMo Inc.

"Asia-Pacific is very important for us in terms of the next big push," said Norm Lo, RIM's vice president of Asia-Pacific, in an interview.

North America is RIM's strongest market, but the company wants to expand BlackBerry's reach into new markets. Asia, with its large population of mobile subscribers and fast-growing markets like China and India, offers great potential, Lo said. China alone has more than 420 million mobile subscribers, with millions more picking up cell phones every month.

BlackBerry first came to Asia in 2002, when the service was made available in Hong Kong. Since then, RIM has signed up more than two dozen operators to offer BlackBerry service in 16 Asia-Pacific countries. The company plans to add another 10 operators over the next 12 months. "Carriers from all the countries in Asia are talking to us," Lo said.

The BlackBerry service is available in China through China Mobile Communications Corp. (China Mobile), the country's largest mobile operator. RIM is counting on business from multinationals to kick-start adoption of the service. Down the road, it hopes to see Chinese companies pick up the service, followed eventually, by "high-end" consumers, Lo said.

One barrier to widespread adoption of BlackBerry in China is the QWERTY keyboard used as an input device on most BlackBerry devices. Users can input Chinese characters with a QWERTY keyboard but many are more comfortable using a touchscreen and stylus.

For now, BlackBerry does not plan to introduce devices that incorporate different input methods, and not just for cost reasons. "There's a cost but really it comes down to how do we address the marketplace, and people aren't clamoring for that," Lo said.

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