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Cracks appear in BIS

"Don't worry," say analysts. Have a "world-class experience", retorts MTN.

Read time 4min 30sec

When BlackBerry announced the operating system that it hopes will pull the ailing firm back from the abyss, the big news for users in the developing world was what it means for BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS). The cheap, flat-rate Internet service that permits basic Internet use such as e-mail, browsing and instant messaging seems to be threatened by BlackBerry's focus on competing with upmarket rivals such as Android handsets and iPhones, rather than on its competitive advantage in the developing world.

Don't worry, said the company, BIS would still be available for older BlackBerry 7 models. In BlackBerry's case, 7+1=10, when it comes to version numbers. Marketers either count in octal, or do not feel themselves constrained by conventional notions of truth, such as basic arithmetic. After all, everything can be true, if words are redefined appropriately, and that's exactly what marketers are employed to do.

Analysts told ITWeb that BlackBerry users, who suffered the many drawbacks compared to an iPhone or an Android handset in return for affordable Internet access, need not worry.

"At an entry package of about R350 a pop (with Vodacom), it's still quite high, but then that is more or less what people are paying for iPhone packages, with half the perks included on the BlackBerry devices," IDC analyst Spiwe Chireka told ITWeb.

But what of these perks? Take BlackBerry Messenger, surely the most important "perk". The reason it is popular is not because it is restricted to BlackBerry users. This is the only feature that makes it different from ordinary IM clients, other than that it is free as part of the flat-rate BIS bundle. And if you're going to pay R350 instead of R59 for a package that is comparable to what iPhone users are paying, why not just get an iPhone in the first place, which by all accounts blows BlackBerry 7 handsets out of the water?

Mobile operators have released pricing for BlackBerry 10 handsets, which range from just shy or R400 a month upwards. This is a steep hike, if you're used to paying R59 a month.

In BlackBerry's case, 7+1=10, when it comes to version numbers.

As for the millions who will choose to stick with their BlackBerry 7 devices, in the hope of retaining flat-rate BIS, there's another piece of bad news.

Vodacom tried, 18 months ago, to place a limit on how much data BIS users could use. This sparked an outcry that made Vodacom backtrack impressively quickly. Now, however, BlackBerry 10 offers a new excuse, and MTN lost no time in putting chains on its own BIS users. It slapped a 200MB cap on the service, which Devan Chetty, an executive at the company, says "aims to provide a world-class experience for our customers".

In what world does capping Internet use constitute a class experience? Which world-class countries limit Internet users to 200MB a month, other than a handful of poor-world backwaters? Sergei Brin is strutting around the Oscars wearing Google's augmented reality glasses.

"The Internet of Things" was a cool new buzzphrase in 2010, when McKinsey wrote: "In what's called the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects - from roadways to pacemakers - are linked through wired and wireless networks, often using the same Internet Protocol (IP) that connects the Internet. These networks churn out huge volumes of data that flow to computers for analysis. When objects can both sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly. What's revolutionary in all this is that these physical information systems are now beginning to be deployed, and some of them even work largely without human intervention."

Sadly, in South Africa, only the wealthiest (or those with the most generous employers) can afford to watch more than a few low-def YouTube clips a month, or listen to streaming Internet radio. Nobody can afford unattended glasses that record video all the time and layer sophisticated information over the real world. Nobody can afford unattended devices that "churn out huge volumes of data".

South Africa will remain in the vanguard only of smart technologists who can figure out how to do things without needing lots of bandwidth. Because we don't have any to spare.

Only in South Africa would a retrogressive move, giving customers less data for their money, or charging more for the same, be considered a "world-class experience".

So, is the "BIS uproar uncalled for", as the analysts and marketroids would have you believe? Only in the sense that it is futile to howl at the sorry state of South Africa's connectivity. If you're a BIS user, prepare to be shunted from second-class to third-class. If that is what "world-class" really means, then the marketers do have truth on their side.

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