Just over a week ago, BlackBerry finally started rolling out its BBM messaging app to iOS and Android users. The initial launch of the app was planned a few weeks earlier but was foiled by the unofficial distribution of a faulty beta software build for iOS, which gunked up the BBM works, at least according to BlackBerry.
This time around, BlackBerry wisely instituted a waiting-list system to limit the number of users who could employ the app until the company was sure it could handle the influx of new messaging activity. The system wasn't well received by the people forced to wait in BlackBerry's digital line, but it seems to have worked well. Now anyone can download and immediately start using the cross platform BBM service.
Today, BlackBerry announced that in just a week it had added 20 million new BBM users, which brought the total number of active BBM users to around 80 million. Those are some big numbers, and the BBM launch was an undisputed success - a success that BlackBerry needed.
But what do those numbers really mean? And are they just a flash in the pan?
First of all, I like the app and service. I'd been using BBM regularly on a BlackBerry for a long time, when, about two years ago, I started looking for an alternative that let me communicate with my friends and relatives on other platforms. I quickly found Kik Messenger and WhatsApp, and I started experimenting with each of them. Over time, I gravitated toward Kik, because, for whatever reason, that's the app that more of my connections chose to use.
Ultimately, that's the true value of messaging apps like BBM, Kik and WhatsApp: The ability to quickly connect and have meaningful interactions with the important people in your life. In order for this to work, the important people in your life need to download - and actually use - the same messaging apps as you.
That's BBM's major challenge: Moving users from other messaging apps and then motivating them to convince their messaging contacts to not only switch to BBM but continue using it. The way to do that is by offering unique and valuable features that other messaging apps don't have.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to come up with compelling features that are unique to BBM, which is the main reason why I'm not yet sold on cross platform BBM.
BBM Privacy and Security
BlackBerry has always prided itself on security. And BBM is no different; the company is trying to set BBM apart from other messaging apps by stressing its security and privacy advantages.
From an Inside BlackBerry blog post:
"BBM is set apart in the mobile messaging space by offering immediacy and a feeling of connecting and collaboration that mirrors the feeling of a face-to-face conversation, all within a simple and easy user experience&We also put control back into people's hands. Let's not underestimate the importance of deciding who will have access to you and your information and how you will build a community of those people."
That's a clear knock on the popular WhatsApp messaging service. WhatsApp has garnered attention in recent days for privacy issues. That app requests access to your device contacts, which could put sensitive information at risk. But the access also enables features related to those contacts, such as the ability to quickly determine who uses WhatsApp and then add them to that app's contacts.
BBM doesn't require access to your contacts, but you also cannot see and quickly add people who are also using BBM. If you care about privacy, BBM has the advantage, but if you care about convenience, the advantage goes to WhatsApp. (I asked BlackBerry some more specific questions about cross-platform BBM security weeks ago, just before the initial launch complications, and I was told the company was working on setting me up with someone. I never heard back.)
Most people simple don't care about security or privacy, unless they've already been burned. I tell this repeatedly to companies that pitch me security related ideas or products all the time. And I tell users that they absolutely should care about both privacy and security. But they don't listen.
I have a friend named Mikey who lives in the woods of Western Mass. Occasionally I visit him to watch a football game or for a barbeque. Mikey always laughs when I lock my car doors after I arrive. Mikey and his wife never lock their car doors at home. I always lock my car doors, wherever I am; I've been burned before, and I care about the security of my vehicle and possessions.
I mention this analogy, because Mikey feels safe in leaving his car doors unlocked at home; nobody has ever broken into his car there. Is Mikey right? Am I? I'm not naive enough to really believe my car is truly secure; a motivated thief could just break the window. (Trust me, I know.) And I don't actually think someone will steal my loose change while I'm parked in Mikey's driveway. But the point is I care about security enough to lock my doors all the time. Mikey takes his chances in favor of convenience.
Most mobile device users feel safe, because they haven't been violated. Right or wrong, privacy and or security are mostly nonissues for them. And they don't really care if BBM is more secure or not, so for most users, security/privacy isn't much or advantage of disadvantage.
BBM's Advantages - or Lack Thereof
BBM for BlackBerry offers a unique Channels feature, as well as BBM Voice and BBM Video, which let you make free phone and video calls using the app. But these features have not yet debuted on the cross platform version, and you may have to pay for one of all of them when they are released "within months." So these are not advantages for BBM, either - not yet, at least.
You can only use BBM on one device at a time, and that's a disadvantage for me compared to Kik. I use multiple devices, and I want to be able to use my main messaging app on all of them.
Then there's performance. For the most part, BBM works well for me, but I have had a few issues with message delivery and delays. I occasionally have similar issues with Kik, but the fact that my BBM experience has not been seamless sticks in my mind as a disadvantage - it doesn't make me more likely to switch from another messaging app.
And BBM doesn't work on Android tablets or iPod touch devices.
The true value of BBM may be in locales where BlackBerry still has a significant user base, such as Indonesia, because those users have much more incentive to convince their non-BlackBerry contacts to employ BBM.
But personally, I'm not sold on BBM, and I though I'm currently using it as my main messaging app, the Kik icon is still sitting on both my iPhone and Android home screens, giving the BBM icon the stinkeye. I'm already losing interest in BBM, and unless BBM gets some compelling new features in the very near future, it's only a matter of time before I switch back to Kik.
The future of BBM isn't clear at this point, but based on my own impressions and feedback from my readers and Twitter followers, I'm doubtful that the service can continue its forward momentum. It just doesn't offer enough advantages over other established cross-platform apps.