For Research in Motion, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) has been a key USP and it remains so in countries like India, where you sometimes have scenarios like restaurants using BBM to update followers about an exciting upcoming event. However, WhatsApp, perhaps the best known BBM competitor (although there are many others who want to aspire to BBM), has gained a tremendous amount of Indian users and while there doesn't seem to be any data on number of users, I'd think it's safe to assume there are more WhatsApp users than BBM users in India today.
As RIM prepares to launch BlackBerry10 on January 30, what will be new about BBM and how can a refreshed BBM ensure that RIM's USP in instant messaging doesn't completely crumble to bits in the face of the WhatsApp assault?
One thing RIM doesn't have to do much with is the infrastructure. Unlike other mobile IMs like WhatsApp, BBM is backed by great infrastructure, which ensures that it does Ds and Rs (Delivered and Read) absolutely right. On WhatsApp, I've often seen huge delays, or have sometimes seen it as read (the double tick mark), but discover it was never even delivered. Because BBM is based on the BlackBerry PIN, and not mobile number like WhatsApp, it leverages RIM's dedicated BBM infrastructure and functions well even while mobile networks are choked during an emergency situation. It also is secure encrypted communication and in an age where battery life is the biggest worry for smartphone users, BBM being a native BlackBerry application uses less of your precious battery life and doesn't cause memory leakages either. With data compression a key feature of BlackBerry, BBM users get information in packets and hence, the user does not have to wait for a huge file to get downloaded to view it; it can be viewed as the information keeps coming in. With BBM 7, the BlackBerry ID is even more important and all contacts are backed up on the cloud and are restored to a BlackBerry as soon as a user signs into BlackBerry ID.
BBM isn't cross platform and possibly, won't ever be made that way
However, while all this is good, the biggest problem for BBM is cross-platform compatibility. As cheap Android handsets take over India, more and more users are taking to apps like WhatsApp. Yes, they may not have the reliability and robustness of BBM, but for users (and rightly so!), instant messaging is just one part of the smartphone advantage.
So, does RIM have some exciting things up its sleeve to convince other smartphone users to try BBM and ergo, BlackBerry10? RIM recently announced BBM 7 with BBM Voice. You can talk to other BBM users who have BBM Voice by using Wi-Fi. The update is not yet available in India because of regulatory uncertainty, but RIM is hoping to have the problems licked soon. And it's an open secret that RIM will announce free video calling over Wi-Fi with BBM when BB10 launches with screens of the feature leaking.
But in a country where voice tariffs are perhaps the cheapest in the world, what sense does it make to offer free calling over Wi-Fi, which will never quite be as good as voice over your regular mobile connection. This feature might work when you need to call abroad and where calling is expensive, and might work as a Skype alternative on your BlackBerry. And now even Facebook is testing voice messages and voice calls on Facebook messenger in select parts of the world. With over a billion users globally, can RIM ever hope to compete with what Facebook offers?
T.A. McCann, RIM's VP of BBM and Social Communities agreed it makes sense to call abroad, but also sees use cases in a business scenario. He said that because BBM 7 with Voice provides context information when he's on the move inside his office, he has the ability to see who is available and make that call for free. And because BlackBerry is the king of productivity, he can leverage the calendar integration to set up meetings. And then there's the contextual advantage when you can see a photo that you're chatting about on your screen itself rather than having to check your e-mail and download an attachment.
So, is voice and possibly video calling all? From what we've seen of the app on Dev Alpha B devices at the recent BBM Jam Asia, the app is definitely visually improved. McCann also talked about BBM Connected.
“BBM Connected is a valuable thing that you won't get anywhere else and you will get even more of that as you look at BB10–the integration that we've done at a contacts level and at the BlackBerry Hub level are differentiators as we get to BB10,” he explains. McCann in his earlier avatar was CEO of Gist, which connected e-mail with information about the people sending those e-mails, and RIM has leveraged Gist technology in the BlackBerry Hub on BB10 to help users find contacts and meeting attendees on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and BBM with activity details and context, and then engage with them through these tools.
Voice calling to be part of BBM 10 make up – Image Source
RIM's BBM Connected is all about chatting with BBM friends from within your apps (there are thousands of BBM connected apps) and selecting BBM contacts right from the app—without leaving the BBM-connected app, you can share your Facebook status update, tweet or share your travel itinerary directly to contacts through BBM. McCann also points out that BBM Connects helps developers as it helps users share their applications. “App discovery is a big challenge, app developers can share what is unique about the application (update, tweet) and it can also help a subset of apps where real-time chat can enhance the application,” he explained.
McCann also added that RIM welcomes WhatsApp (incidentally, WhatsApp has announced they have no plans to develop WhatsApp for BB10). “We embrace those who solve the cross-platform challenge for us. So while WhatsApp runs great on BlackBerry, what we find is that people who have BBM prefer using BBM more, not necessarily more than WhatsApp, but they prefer it. There are many such apps out there and we want more of them to come to BlackBerry. Another good example is Facebook Messenger. We want them to bring more innovation, even in some cases where it is competitive.”
Sharing media and files on WhatsApp is quite simple
With BlackBerry Balance, another key feature of BB10, BBM might have another advantage for people who want a work life balance. BlackBerry Balance in BB10 will enable users to have two separate, securely walled off but simultaneously active profiles on their BlackBerry 10 devices, one for work and one for personal use. The work profile would comply with your IT policy and could be controlled by your IT administrator. While McCann said that separation is available at the smartphone contacts level on BB10, it isn't something that is done with BBM yet, but something RIM wants to do. So, you could push status updates only to a select set of personal contacts for instance.
He said that on his watch, he had a significant update cycle for BBM till the middle of 2013, both on BB10 as well as the older BlackBerry OS, which means more such features may be in the pipes.
From a very futuristic perspective, there's also the possibility of BBM integration with QNX Car, a pre-integrated platform built on an OS that's already there on tens of millions of vehicles, that enables car manufacturers to hit the ground running and significantly reduce the time required to build connected, cutting-edge infotainment systems. This year at CES, QNX (a subsidiary of RIM) launched a concept car, based on a Bentley Continental GT convertible, that the company claims integrates technologies never before seen in any vehicle, helping car manufacturers build the 'connected cockpit' of tomorrow. It offers smartphone integration, 3D navigation, voice recognition, a multimedia system with first in-car implementation of Shazam music discovery service, web app for remote monitoring, a reconfigurable digital instrument cluster and even video conferencing with realistic telepresence.
All of which begs the question—wouldn't it make far more sense to make BBM cross-platform, perhaps even a 'BBM Light' for other platforms? While that's what many BBM users want, RIM is clear that's not a possibility, at least for now. “The only plan to be on BlackBerry, to make BBM best on BlackBerry,” said McCann.
Will users agree? You'll know starting January 30, when BB10 is launched.
What do you think? Does BBM on BB10 seem exciting enough? Or will you still prefer the cross-platform functionality of WhatsApp?