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The Red and the Black

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on April 16, 2006

With Chinese President Hu Jintao traveling at the end of the month to the U.S. for a much-anticipated summit with President Bush, China is supposed to be defusing trade tensions, not inflaming them. Hence the early April trip by Vice Premier Wu Yi and Chinese corporate executives promising to make big purchases from U.S. companies. Hence also the news coming from China that the government is cracking down harder on intellectual property piracy. But executives at state-owned cellular operator China Unicom didn’t get the memo. How else to explain the odd timing of their announcement that they’re launching a new service, similar to RIM’s BlackBerry, with the not-so-creative name of Redberry? (See my colleague Arik Hesseldahl’s story on this here.) RIM, of course, is a Canadian company, not an American one, and Unicom might not be technically violating the company’s BlackBerry trademark. But still, China Unicom’s move just reminds people of the extent to which Western companies have their IPR ripped off in China.

I can’t tell whether Unicom is being really brazen or just really naive in its launch of the Redberry now. Consider the press release on the Unicom website. (It’s only in Chinese.) It states explicitly that Unicom chose the Redberry name because of the success of RIM’s BlackBerry, going so far as to explain the history of the BlackBerry in the late 1990s and even the origin of the BlackBerry name. Choosing the Redberry brand, Unicom adds, “continues the already familiar ‘BlackBerry’ image and name.” So much for plausible deniability.

Another interesting thing about the Redberry – the name seems to have started out as a joke. The technology comes from a Beijing company called Facio Software Inc., which brands the software “Uni PushMail.” “Today, we are the only commercially available PushMail solution in China,” Facio boasts on its website. “We are the Redberry!” Blackberry, Redberry. Get it? Somehow, I don’t think Hu Jintao is amused right now.

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