SHANGHAI/TAIPEI (Reuters) - Even before its official launch in China, Research In Motion's RIM.TO BlackBerry faces daunting challenges from low-cost rivals and a thicket of regulations that could trip up its advance into the world's largest mobile market.
As the Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM RIMM.O seeks to satisfy Beijing that its handsets pose no security threat to China's communications networks, other homegrown competitors -- including a cleverly nicknamed "RedBerry" -- are making headway.
RIM, whose share price has more than tripled over the last year, has partnered with China Mobile (0941.HK), the world's largest cellular operator, but will have to play catchup with the popular local "RedBerry" service run by China's number-two mobile operator, China Unicom (0762.HK).
"Chinese businessmen are not that international yet, so they are not as familiar yet with the Blackberry and prefer local gadgets," said Rock Yang, principal handsets analyst at Beijing-based BDA.
"Price will be the deciding factor in determining how the BlackBerry expands in China," he added.
The BlackBerry is available on about 300 networks in 120 countries. Having launched in Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan, the BlackBerry's last major Asian frontier is China.
Though China Mobile has launched SIM cards for the BlackBerry, the actual handset is not yet available, RIM has said.
Media reports said in July that RIM had received approval from Chinese regulators to begin shipping its devices, which helped popularize wireless e-mailing, to the mainland through the parent of Hong Kong-listed China Mobile (0941.HK) (CHL.N).
Besides the RedBerry -- whose official name is "Cai E" -- Chinese subscribers can also take their pick from several low-cost mobile email services from a range of providers, including Leadtone Wireless and UFIDA Software (600588.SS).
As RIM tries to push the BlackBerry beyond its traditional high-end corporate niche, it will have to decide whether to sacrifice high per-user revenues to woo Chinese retail consumers.
China also boasts hundreds of grey market firms that make clones of popular branded phones for a fraction of the originals' price, which will be a key challenge for RIM as it makes most of its revenue through handset sales.
While a BlackBerry handset is as yet not officially available for sale in China, a knock-off can already be bought online for as little as 270 yuan ($36).
There is also a gaping difference in cost of mobile email services in China.
China Mobile charges corporate customers a service fee of 598 yuan a month for 400 megabytes of mailbox space.
China Unicom's "RedBerry" service, by comparison, charges a mere 30 yuan a month for 200 megabytes of mailbox storage.
While the BlackBerry -- nicknamed "CrackBerry" by avid users -- is starting to make headway in the retail market, particularly in North America, its client base is still mainly made up of corporate executives, lawyers, politicians and other professionals.
Still, the sheer scale of China's market -- the world's largest mobile area with some 516 million users -- may mean RIM may not need to focus immediately on its traditional high-end corporate market, analysts said.
"The market for mobile e-mail is potentially huge, so local rivals may prove less of an obstacle to RIM than they might, on the face of it, appear to be," said Tony Cripps, analyst at research provider Ovum.
WEB OF RULES
Chinese authorities' concern about communication network security may explain why RIM took so long to officially introduce the BlackBerry in China, said Melissa Chau, Associate Market Analyst of Personal Systems Group at IDC Asia Pacific.
Sensitivity to security issues may also prove a stumbling-block in future, analysts said.
"Government regulations certainly have a role to play when it comes to the technologies BlackBerry uses, especially when it comes to security," said IDC's Chau.
In particular, Chinese authorities are scrutinizing BlackBerry technology to ensure the way data is routed through overseas servers does not pose a security threat, Chau said.
Media reports have said that a reason for the delay in RIM's launch in China might be because RIM's high-level encryption technology would make it difficult for Chinese authorities to gain access to and monitor e-mail messages.
In the long-term, security concerns and a preference for promoting home-grown technologies may lead the Chinese authorities to favor local players.
"The Chinese government's strong support of home-grown technology could favor local solutions more than elsewhere, especially if that support translates to buyers of business technology," said Ovum's Cripps.