Blacker than BlackBerrys

By Lara Farrar and Yang Wanli (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-24 10:40
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Blacker than BlackBerrys
A display of knockoff BlackBerrys at a mobile phone market in Beijing.

It could be called the Barack Obama BlackBerry sales pitch.

"This is Obama's favorite phone," said a vendor in one of Beijing's sprawling electronics markets as he tries to sell a customer a BlackBerry Curve 8320, a model similar to the one carried by the president of the United States.

The sleek, little smartphone looks just like Barack's. Yet there is one major difference: it's fake.

Beijing's electronics markets are flooded with dozens of BlackBerry knockoffs - one dubbed BlockBerry is advertised with a photo of Obama himself - and authentic models of the smartphone smuggled in from the West.

Canadian Blackberry maker Research In Motion (RIM) announced a deal in early December with China Mobile to introduce a customized handset into China in its latest attempt to gain a share of the world's largest mobile phone market.

BlackBerry handsets have been available since 2006 to employees of a few major companies through China Mobile.

Now they will soon be on sale to small businesses and individual customers.

Yet many Beijing consumers say they would rather risk buying a smuggled BlackBerry than one that is legit.

"Many of my colleagues have purchased a smuggled BlackBerry," said Li Quran while shopping at Etpone, a mobile market at Zhongguancun, the electronics shopping epicenter in Beijing.

"We all know there are risks, but so what? It is cheap and fashionable."

Cheap and fashionable, yes. But just as good as the real thing? That depends, according to those who sell them.

"Some are good and some are not as good," Wang Xianghu, a vendor specializing in BlackBerry - as well as imitation Blockberry and Blueberry - handsets said.

From a distance, the shanzhai, or knockoff, BlackBerrys that Wang is selling look authentic. However a closer look reveals they are not.

Shanzhai is a term that emerged several years ago to describe "gray market" handset industry. Some shanzhai phones are blatant copycats of famous brands. Others are a mix of imitation and innovation, containing special functions to meet the needs of the local market.

Dual slots for SIM cards, which allow two phone numbers for one handset, is one homegrown feature of shanzhai BlackBerrys. The phones come equipped with WiFi, two cameras, social networking software and a tiny television antenna, too.

And they are cheap.

An imitation BlackBerry Curve 8900, one of RIM's top-selling models, retails for 800 yuan ($117). The real one sells for around $500.

But the impostor phones are not 3G, which means browsing the Internet, sending e-mail or downloading sophisticated applications can be painstakingly slow.

"The hardware itself is quite similar to original BlackBerrys but not as high quality," said Tai-Pan, editor of, a website that tracks the trends of China's tech culture.

"Most business users who buy the BlackBerry are doing so for its excellent push e-mail and enterprise software support," he said.

"People who buy the fake ones won't be getting that same software."

Push e-mail is a system that actively transfers, or pushes, new e-mails from a server to a handset.

Smuggled BlackBerrys come with all the features yet also come with catches, too.

"Typically they are new devices so the quality is as good as it can get," Tai-Pan said.

"What is usually missing is the support and warrantee. If you buy a gray market phone and it breaks, you're out of luck or will have to pay to get it fixed, which can be difficult if the phone is not overly popular."

Users of illegally imported phones may also not be able to take advantage of the push e-mail function, which requires mobile carriers to have a special server.

"If somebody wants to buy a smuggled BlackBerry, they need to be very sure the operator supports all of the features," said Karl Weaver, a mobile device specialist for the Chinese handset ecosystem.

"The voice will work, the text messaging will work, but when it comes to the e-mail, that is a different ball game."

Yet for those looking for fashion over function, a low-price BlackBerry look-alike is a purchase they say is worth making.

"People who buy the BlackBerry on their own are not buying it for push e-mail rather they are looking for the BlackBerry brand name," said Jonathan Li, founder of Shanghai-based technology design studio Asentio Design.

"We'd rather buy a smuggled phone," said Li, who was shopping for a mobile at ETOpone.

"Nobody can stop the large amount of customers in China who are passionate about keeping up with digital trends."

RIM could not be reached for comment.