RIM’s big differentiator: staying out of China

RIM logoIn a startlingly refreshing display of honesty, RIM CEO Thorsten Heins has come out and said the firm is steering clear of China when it comes to manufacturing to reduce the risk of IP theft which could cripple its business.

It’s a bold statement, given that in my experience most tech firms – and even analysts – are very reluctant to discuss China in anything approaching critical terms, especially when cyber security is mentioned.

It’s certainly a valid point. I’ve reported in the past for The Register how many multinationals are suffering IP loss from their Chinese business units.

As RIM is teetering on the brink financially and seems only to be able to differentiate competitively from its rivals by virtue of the superior security capabilities of its handsets and infrastructure, any breach would be a huge blow.

That’s not to say it is necessarily safer anywhere else, but eliminating China from the supply chain could be a wise move.

Even the Chinese government has indirectly admitted its firms do not innovate enough themselves – the inference I’m drawing here is they nick a lot of IP instead.

Kenny Lee, a forensics expert with Verizon Business, sat down with me on Thursday to explain what hacking activity he’s seeing inside Hong Kong and Chinese firms.

Interestingly, while he did admit there was a fair amount of “low level” IP theft from firms in the region, mainly due to employees looking to set up their own businesses, there is a more insidious data leakage problem – technology transfers.

These agreements are usually foisted on foreign multinationals wanting to expand into China. The deal is that they have to partner up with a local Chinese firm by law to sell into the country’s huge market, and in doing so will usually need to share IP with them.

After a certain point, Lee explained, the Chinese partner usually has enough knowledge to pull out of the venture, having sucked all the IP it needs from its foreign partner.

There’s the rub for foreign firms such as BT, who can’t gain direct access to the market but equally reject the idea of handing over their hard-earned IP.

There’s no chance of things changing from the top anytime soon, so foreign firms will continue to have to weigh the risks and make that judgement.

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