BlackBerry maker must change to survive

In the raging battle between BlackBerry’s maker, Research in Motion, and the Indian government, many may have backed the Canadian company too soon, and after insufficient consideration. It might have even appeared a no-brainer. Who would you rather back? The cutting-edge technology company, maker of the world’s first smartphone? Or its warring partner – a bumbling gerontocratic government run by some leaders who may never have directly used e-mail or SMS?

But if you looked closely, RIM has a bad history and a poor case, one that deserves far greater scrutiny than has been attempted by self-styled champions of Internet’s freedom.

RIM routinely refuses to disclose the location of its servers, except those in Canada. It frequently is deliberately ambivalent on whether or not it can provide a ‘key’ to read encrypted e-mails. Few believe RIM’s claim that it provides a ‘uniform’ service in all countries. For example, Jeffrey Carr, a security consultant and CEO of GreyLogic, believes RIM already provides decrypted data to Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor agency to KGB. Its operations in China remain a mystery. Critics also question how the company created a special BlackBerry device for US President Barack Obama, with technology that presumably has the security approval of the White House.

In short, RIM has all along thrived on keeping its operations a closely guarded secret and probably cut deals on the sly whenever and wherever it was forced to. In fact, as RIM’s row with several countries intensified this month, it quickly agreed to locate a server in Saudi Arabia, even as its officials resisted similar access to Indian security agencies. So, its pattern of behavior is inconsistent at best and dubious, at worst.

Two years ago, RIM had a similar skirmish with Indian security agencies but resisted any compromises. But the view, especially among techies, was that Indian hackers had been able to crack the BlackBerry code and consequently, didn’t require the company’s cooperation. In fact, cynics say much the same thing about why the U.S. and other advanced countries have no objections to the BlackBerry service. However, in recent months, India presumably may have been locked out of newer BlackBerry systems, necessitating the recent dust-up.

BlackBerry’s sole, and best, defense is the quality of its service. It is indisputably the best of its kind, and in many ways, one of its kind, too. No other broad-based mobile service puts in a dedicated server to make sure users’ e-mails are delivered at blazing speeds, and are kept secure. Such a service is clearly required, as reflected in its large user base across the world. However, BlackBerry needs to come to grips with the post-9/11 world, and recognize the need for security agencies the world over to monitor technology, a vital tool in the hands of terrorists. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, among others, have learnt to balance privacy with security needs of governments. So must BlackBerry. It is another matter altogether that BlackBerry must do all it can to protect its market share against onslaughts from the iPhone and Android-based smartphones.