Last week we ran some photos of BlackBerry Messenger running on an Android phone. The pics, sent to us from a tipster who claims to work for Research in Motion, seem to corroborate rumors from earlier this year that RIM would at long last be porting their most popular feature, BBM, to competitors’ platforms. Said tipster said to expect BBM for Android/iOS to launch as a pay-to-use service, with the Android version costing somewhere in the order of $3.99/month in the US and £5/mo in the UK.
So here’s the thing. Assuming the photos are real and the tips are true, why is RIM doing this? Why use DevCon Americas next week in San Francisco to announce to your community that BlackBerry Messenger is going cross-platform? BBM is arguably BlackBerry’s most attractive selling point – I’d say the sheer addictiveness of their messaging-centric OS and awesome physical keyboards are right up there. If RIM opens BBM up to Android and iOS, the very platforms who’ve been kicking their butts over the past 24 months, will anyone still want to buy a piece of BlackBerry hardware?
I know plenty of folks who still carry two devices around all day: A corporate-issue BlackBerry and an iPhone/Droid that’s more fun to use. The week I spent lugging a Bold 9900 everywhere reminded me of how well suited RIM’s phones are to communicating with other human beings; Android and iOS may be great at letting me surf the Web, consume video, and fling stuff blindly at all of my social networks en masse, but BB OS is built for rapid-fire conversations with other people.
BBM is apparently a huge part of the Berry’s charm. I say “apparently” because I’ve never really gone there in full force. Every time I’ve reviewed a BlackBerry I’ve gotten as far as messing around with BBM, sending my PIN to a few people, and then reverting to the lesser ways of Email/IM/SMS before penning my review and sending the loaner phone back to the appropriate PR person. But my died in the wool CrackBerry fiends tell me that BBM is the real juice. Faster than IM, more flexible and secure than SMS, and generally more awesome than both put together, BBM is where n00bs end and real addicts seek help for thumb injuries.
So why would RIM even think of giving the milk away for four bucks a month when they can charge $199 plus a two year contract to get the cow? Two reasons.
First, they’re losing market share and fast. The latest ComScore reports show BlackBerry OS having lost an additional five percent of the market between May and August, slipping to just 19.7 of the US smartphone market – good for third place behind Android and iOS. While RIM is at work shoehorning the QNX platform into smartphone just as fast as they can, they know they’ve got to stop the bleeding in the meantime. The lastest batch of Berrys were met with decent critical reviews, but they’ve failed to set the mobile marketplace ablaze. Contrast that to Apple’s iPhone 4S, which is setting pre-order sales records left and right despite a lukewarm reception from tech pundits (yeah, we’re dumb) and RIM’s problems are clearly defined: BlackBerry addicts love their hardcore messaging, but the rest of the world is more interested in media consumption, apps, and flinging games and video from their phones to their flat panel TVs.
And oh yeah, Apple’s launching that iMessage thing later this week. Gulp.
So it makes sense that RIM would look to a “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy to boost revenue in the short-term vis-a-vis a $4/month service running on other smartphone platforms. And that dovetails with the second reason to take BBM cross-platform. BBM for all might just keep BlackBerry users at least partially in the fold (via BBM) until they can catch up to the all-touch, multimedia-heavy smartphone present day (via QNX). At the least it’ll give BlackBerry defectors a reason to think twice before adopting iMessage and telling their friends and colleagues to join them on Apple’s new platform. If things go Waterloo’s way, maybe some users skip a generation of RIM hardware but stay hooked on BBM via Android/iOS, and then return to the fold once QNX-powered Berrys hit their stride.
But what if things don’t go that way, QNX is too little, too late, and RIM’s market share continues to slide? Then what? Better to pivot and become a software and services company – or strike a Faustian bargain to build Android hardware with BBM baked in – then to fold up shop and declare bankruptcy, no? RIM’s screwed up, and big, over the past few years and they and their board know it (at last). Could they be on the verge of adapting to the times, playing it smart, and hedging their bets by opening up their most famous feature-cum-service while sorting own their own next-generation of hardware and software? I hope so. An announcement next week that BBM
Or maybe we’re all getting duped, this BBM for Android/iOS thing is just a lark, and RIM’s gonna spring PlayBook 2: The RIMpire Strikes Back on us next week…