London’s burning, and BlackBerry’s in the firing line

London riots, by Alan StantonIt didn’t take long for the media inquest into London’s weekend of rioting to turn towards technology. The British capital, if you missed it, was hit by a series of violent revolts that span off from a protest about the death of a man, Mark Duggan, who was shot by police in controversial circumstances. But what began as a peaceful demonstration quickly ran out of control, as angry mobs started attacking police and looting stores at random.

With the city braced for more potential violence today, news organizations are looking at the role played by social networks like Twitter, and scanning social media to try and trace those apparently bragging of their looting. But more than all of these, focus is coming in on the humble BlackBerry.

In particular, several reports and blog posts have mentioned how the Research in Motion’s (s RIMM) BlackBerry Messenger system (BBM) was the contact method of choice for many rioters. This piece by Jon Akwue seems like one of the first to point out the link: “It appears that BBM messages have been circulating since Thursday’s shooting of Duggan by the police,” he wrote on Sunday. “These have fuelled the anger of the youths that have taken to the streets. BBM was also the channel used to spread the word that the riot had started”. Mike Butcher of TechCrunch followed up by suggesting that “BlackBerrys have become the weapon of choice of Britain’s disaffected youth”.

In fact, it’s impossible to tell whether these reports are accurate, since BBM messages are heavily encrypted and largely impenetrable to the outside world. And even if was being used to organize criminal activity, I think it’s wrong to conclude that happened because of the BlackBerry (just as it’s wrong to suggest Egypt was a “Facebook revolution”).

But the broader point that it raises is that the BlackBerry is still massively popular in some markets, which may come as something of a surprise to those who live in the technology industry bubble.

BlackBerry: more popular than it gets credit for

After all, we hear a lot about the rise of the West Coast mobile giants and the failings of RIM and Nokia(s nok). This narrative of rise and fall fits neatly into the view of the world as a place of binaries, of opposites, of clashing cultures. One group wins, another loses. But while it’s broadly accurate, it also misses out on the nuance of the real world. There’s the fact that Nokia handsets are so popular in developing countries that they account for a high proportion of the 228 million pirate phones sold in 2010; or there’s the often-ignored reality that the BlackBerry is massively popular with young city dwellers across the West.

Look around a Tube carriage or on a bus or standing on a street corner in London, and the BlackBerry will be as popular as any other handset you can spot. There are iPhones(s aapl), Androids(s goog) and others, too, but among the under-25 crowd, the BlackBerry is big news.

So why is it a hit with this urban crowd? You could put it down to a few factors. Perhaps it’s that typing messages with a real keyboard is fast — handy for text-addicted teenagers and their friends. There’s marketing, too: Research in Motion has recognized this area of growth for a while, and has been doing sponsorship and product placement deals with acts from the Black Eyed Peas to Jay-Z to try and boost its credibility. Here’s a clip of U.K. chart star Tinie Tempah heading a recent London gig sponsored by BlackBerry and local urban radio station KISS 100.

Then there’s the network effect. For BlackBerry users, BBM becomes a free and natural extension of SMS — and one that locks users in to the brand. Stop using BlackBerry and you stop using BBM, stick with it, and you can chat with your friends for nothing.

Most important of all is the simple fact that the BlackBerry itself is now dirt cheap, with new models like the Curve available in Britain for around £10 a month as opposed to the heftier fees to use Android or the iPhone. You can often get several handsets thrown in for the price of one, too. It’s built to appeal to those with limited budgets but high demands.

The one aspect I suspect will get overplayed, however, is encryption. The confidentiality of Research In Motion’s services is a big selling point in the corporate world — so much so that it’s got it into trouble in various jurisdictions for being beyond the reach of the police. Take India, where the government has been locked in a war with RIM because it can’t access encrypted Blackberry data. BBM encryption may be useful to those engaging in illegal activities, but it takes a significant leap of faith to suggest that it is what drives broader consumer take-up.

Responsible? Not quite

This all shows why BlackBerry is popular among the people rioting in London, but none of this means that BlackBerry is responsible for the riots in any real way. That won’t stop people trying to link the two, of course, and it certainly won’t stop RIM executives shifting uncomfortably in their seats every time their brand is mentioned alongside images of burning buildings or angry mobs.

Indeed, the company has even released a statement saying that it is happy to cooperate with local police to help enforce the law (note, that’s not the same as handing over messages to them). The pressure is clearly mounting.

In fact, though, I think it really only underscores a single point: that BlackBerry, for all its problems, is still popular with plenty of people — something the press, always happy to fawn over the next big thing, tends to forget. Perhaps these riots, one way or another, suggest we should all start taking more notice of what’s going on in our own back yard.

Photograph used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Alan Stanton