Will BBM on an iPhone save BlackBerry?

12th Jun 2013 | 11:10

Will BBM on an iPhone save BlackBerry?

Cross-platform = more BlackBerry fans, apparently

When BlackBerry architect Gary Klassen first came up with the idea for what became BlackBerry Messenger, his colleagues at what was then Research In Motion didn't understand why anyone would need anything except mobile email. Even his wife wasn't impressed.

"The first time I brought BBM home, I put two devices down on the table and I said to my wife 'watch!'. I typed in a message on one phone and it showed up on the other and she just looked at me and said 'couldn't you do that before?' I said 'no, no, it's different this time!' She wasn't convinced - but now my whole family uses BBM."

There has been one recent defector, Klassen joked. "My nephew bought an iPhone and he was ostracised from his community." But he'll be able to come back into the fold in the summer when BBM comes to iOS and Android phones.

Mobile is different

Klassen has been behind plenty of BlackBerry successes. He's worked on a wide range of BlackBerry products, from the 'old-skool' software all the way to BlackBerry 10.

He helped build the first ever colour BlackBerry phone before working on IM integration with services such as Yahoo Messenger, then moving on to work on HTML email. He even created the first version of the famous BlackBerry 'splat' to tell you when you had new messages.

In 2005 he came up with the idea of creating a mobile-only instant messaging system - an idea that didn't make sense to everyone.

"BBM was a bit of an underdog when it started. Not everybody believed in it; how could we compete against the incumbents such as MSN and ICQ? When we were working with Yahoo we could only do what the other clients did, but with this we would control both ends of the connection, so we could do a lot more.

"We experimented with all kinds of stuff that we thought were good ideas and found out they weren't. In a mobile environment certainty and reliability have so much more importance, and a sense of presence is different on mobile."

The history and future of BBM

Showing whether someone was available to read and reply to your messages turned out to be a whole new challenge, and one that initially presented a few hurdles:

"There was a study in a college where they gave the students mobile IM and at the end of the study they were surprised to find that the students were really distressed by it, they didn't want to have anything to do with it." Klassen says, "Appearing online and available, when I'm not, causes stress."

The BBM team solved that by marking when a message had been delivered to the other person, so you knew the system was reliable, and marking when a message was read so you know whether you could expect to get a reply.

"When we added those Ds and Rs, we changed the paradigm," Klassen told us. "If I know the end point is another mobile, I get the implications. It becomes socially acceptable if I don't reply because I'm busy or I'm on a bus. And it doesn't rely on me changing a setting or the network being able to decide whether I'm available."

Generally, BBM users do reply pretty quickly. VP of software product management and ecosystem Andrew Bocking told us that BBM users spend about 90 minutes a day in BBM "and around half of the users read messages that are sent to them within 20 seconds."

Klassen and the BBM team knew they had a hit on their hands when the service started spreading virally inside the company. Despite the doubters who pointed out that they already had instant email, when Klassen showed off BBM, people started using it - even though he thought it wasn't ready.

The history and future of BBM

"I wrote down the URL and in three days there were hundreds of people using it. Half the parts that we thought were essential didn't work but they could still use it, and they did."

And once it became popular, other employees had to join in to stay connected. "If someone on a team didn't want to use it, they found they had to because the team had started planning their monthly lunches on it," Klassen remembers.

He doesn't claim to have had a grand vision for BBM from day one, and certainly not a cross-platform one. "With technology, often we look back and say 'that's why we built it, we built it for this or that' - but sometimes you don't. The way that BBM came about was that we built something and we listened carefully to what stuck with the users."

Giving in or spreading out?

BBM has always been one of the selling points for BlackBerry, so is bringing it to iOS and Android an admission of failure? CEO Thorsten Heins said repeatedly at BlackBerry Live that taking BBM cross-platform now is a vote of confidence in how good BlackBerry 10 is and how many features it has beyond BBM.

As Bocking pointed out to TechRadar, it could be an advert for BlackBerry. "Going cross-platform; think about what an opportunity that creates for people to experience BlackBerry Messenger and get a taste for BlackBerry. We can turn 60 million BBM users into advocates on social networks."

Klassen agrees that it's far easier for people to see the appeal of BBM once they've used it. "There are people, when I talk about Ds and Rs, who have stories about what that has meant to them. If I talk to someone who hasn't used it before, their eyes glaze over. They don't understand the benefit and it's hard to explain that you get addicted to looking for the R until you've experienced it.

"We're giving people the opportunity to experience it and then they can ask themselves 'what is it about this that I like?' And then maybe they'll ask 'why is somebody in my community [who's using a BlackBerry] able to communicate so much more effectively?'"

The history and future of BBM

But there is another reason. With BBM Channels launching, BlackBerry needs to have as many users as possible for brands to sign up to their channels so BlackBerry can earn money from things like sponsored invitations.

As Bocking explains, "Extending [across other mobile platforms] grows the audience, and a large base is critical to have the mass to monetise any service.

"Going cross-platform is an acknowledgement this is a heterogeneous environment we are living in, and by supporting our services across those platforms we can support our customers, [something] they've asked for."

That means BBM has to be as good on iOS and Android devices as it is on BlackBerrys. It will start with text and images but voice and video chat will come later. "We want feature parity so we can build a highly engaged audience on the platform," says Bocking.

And Klassen told us that includes core features. "We can implement the same user interface and we can tell you when a message has been delivered. Those things will be built in, so we can give you the same confidence you're looking for when you send a message."

The history and future of BBM

BBM isn't coming to Windows Phone this summer, but that's not because Microsoft is the competition, says Bocking. "Our users have been focused on asking for iOS and Android; we have not been hearing requests for Windows Phone.

"I won't say that will never happen. It's a matter of is there interest from our users, if they are asking for it. Equally, we don't have plans for a web-based client, but we'll be listening to what our users want."

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