Research In Motion (RIM), the company behind the BlackBerry e-mail service and handsets, is expanding its Hong Kong operations to support a big push into the mainland and other Asia-Pacific markets.
The Canadian firm declined to provide investment figures, but said it would add about 10 more carrier-partners in the region, increase staff and release its portfolio of handsets across the mainland by the end of the year.
'Hong Kong boasts a superb business network, advanced infrastructure and a highly skilled labour force, making it an ideal location to base our Asia-Pacific operations,' RIM Asia-Pacific vice-president Norm Lo said last week.
'The opening of our expanded Hong Kong office will help us address the increasing opportunities that are being generated in this region.'
Mr Lo said forthcoming service launches started from Hong Kong would include partnerships with Taiwan Mobile and NTT DoCoMo in Japan. After launching its service in Asia in May 2002 with 3 Hong Kong, RIM now has 27 partners in 16 markets across the region.
By next year, the firm expects to double its staffing of about 100 people in the region - with Hong Kong employees supporting the build-up of its mainland operations. It has about 5,000 workers worldwide.
'That decision once again underlines the key role Hong Kong plays as the business hub in Asia,' said John Rutherford, associate director-general of investment promotion at Invest Hong Kong.
RIM has built a global user community of 5.5 million since it launched BlackBerry in 1999.
On May 11, the company announced its long-anticipated alliance with China Mobile and the launch of BlackBerry services in all 31 mainland provinces.
The announcement came about 20 months after RIM and China Mobile signed a memorandum of understanding to deliver BlackBerry to the carrier's general packet radio service network. It is expected to be ready in the third quarter.
Research firm Gartner expects the availability of BlackBerry service to improve the way enterprise users in the mainland access e-mail when they are travelling.
China Mobile's initial offer will target about 5,000 users who now use the BlackBerry service on roaming data packages. Later, the carrier will sell directly to enterprises and offer Chinese-language support.
'This market segmentation offers a lot of upside for China Mobile because its enterprise customers require more value-added solutions beyond short message services that provide low mobile costs,' said Duncan Clark, managing director at telecommunications and technology consultancy BDA China.
Manny Lopez, a senior analyst at research firm International Data Corp, said RIM also looked to knock the wind out of China Unicom's fledgling RedBerry e-mail service, launched in April.
But to succeed in the mainland, Gartner said RIM must explore other channels than China Mobile. This included national distributors, systems integrators or provincial carriers with enterprise expertise. 'RIM faces strong competition from several vendors,' it said.
Nokia, for example, already has the top position in the mobile device market in China with a market share of more than 30 per cent. Microsoft offers an e-mail solution available for devices running its Windows Mobile 5 operating platform.
'China is largely a consumer-oriented mobile services market; many enterprises have little experience in supporting wireless applications and may be slow in adopting it,' Gartner said.