The Blackberry Live conference was held earlier this week and although the new Q5 handset was announced, the company grabbed far more headlines by revealing its popular messaging app, BBM, would be ported to both Android and iOS this summer.
"We will make BBM available as the premiere multiplatform messaging solution all around the globe, and even better, it's free," BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins said at the conference held in Orlando, Florida. "This is such a great experience, it's just too good to keep it only to ourselves."
This is a great message and shows how BlackBerry could reinvent itself around software and services instead of handsets and tablets. The only problem: Heins is about three years too late.
BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, has been BlackBerry's most successful product in the last five years. Unfortunately, until now the company has treated it like a feature. BBM was one of the first unified messaging clients, blurring the boundaries between instant messages and texts before anyone else did. If you asked any tweener or twenty-something, he or she would have told you that BBM was the number one reason for buying a BlackBerry. Okay, maybe the price and the keyboard came first, but BBM was the thing they loved most about their phone. The platform opportunity was there for the taking, but BlackBerry only saw it as a way to sell more handsets.
And we know how that turned out.
Now it seems like BlackBerry realises the jewel that it had and is ready to invest in the product again. Indeed, the new BBM sounds pretty cool. When it rolls out this summer it will support a feature called BlackBerry Groups, which will allow up to 30 people to share calendar information, photos, and other files. Plus, BlackBerry claims it has more than 60 million users worldwide, even as its handset sales dwindle. Not a bad place to start, right? That is, until you consider that upstart Viber has more than 200 million users worldwide and it already has clients for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry.
Many of the core features of BBM have become seamlessly integrated into iOS and Android itself. Even BlackBerry's plan to incorporate Twitter-like channels of content within BBM also seems dated. Consumers already have a lot of feeds to follow and accounts to update. The beauty of BBM, at least back then, was that it streamlined these different services instead of simply adding another one.
The only thing that keeps me from dismissing BlackBerry's plans to disrupt the messaging market is the fact that it has done so before. BlackBerry, or Research In Motion as it was called back then, may not have invented the mobile email market, but it certainly dominated it. Less than 10 years ago, BlackBerry defined the smartphone market and had the market share to prove it. Unfortunately, Apple and Google have since redefined it and BlackBerry is playing catch up.
Heins is right to focus on software and services instead of handsets and tablets, but it will take more than BBM to stage a comeback.