BlackBerry has taken another step towards revamping itself by releasing a new version of its free, BBM mobile messenger, adding a raft of extra features. Four months ago BlackBerry made BBM go cross platform for the first time, making it available on iPhones and Android phones and swelling its user base to more than 80 million people. Now it’s adding voice calling, conversation “channels” for brands and communities, an integration with DropBox and a partnership with the location-sharing app Glympse.
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The biggest feature in today’s BBM 2.0 update is a direct challenge to free, calling apps like Viber and Skype, letting users call their BBM contacts over Wi-Fi or a data connection. The “channels” feature also looks like it could be a route to bringing in ad dollars for BlackBerry: it invites users to follow and converse with brands on the service, not unlike Twitter.
This is all part of BlackBerry’s drive to turn BBM into a social platform, with messaging at the core. Mobile messaging competitors like LINE, KakaoTalk, WeChat and Kik have all been moving in the same direction, building out platforms for third-party developers to sell things like games and digital stickers.
Though the apps are free, the extra services bring in millions in sales. KakaoTalk is forecasting revenue of $200 million in 2013, the company tells me, half of which will be derived from games. That’s quadruple the $45 million in sales Kakao made in 2012. Meanwhile Japanese chat app LINE is widely expected to be planning an IPO this year, in which it could be valued at a reported $8 billion.
BlackBerry wants to differentiate BBM by positioning it as a messenger for both consumers and enterprises users, building on BlackBerry’s strong footing in the enterprise server space and security. New CEO John Chen recently put BBM under his enterprise division, installing the man who runs BlackBerry’s global enterprise solutions, John Sims as its head.
“My focus on BBM is to broaden its base as much as I possibly can and add features both in the enterprise space and the retail space,” Chen told me in a recent interview when asked about BBM as a potential revenue driver. While BBM doesn’t make much money now, he hopes that by adding features and scaling up, BlackBerry can turn it into a viable business like Kakao or LINE over the next few years. “This is going to be a major differentiator for us in going into the enterprise, so then money will come.”
Chen is well aware of how BlackBerry’s market share in device sales have plummeted. Recent research from IDC shows BlackBerry now has less than 0.6% of the market. “This is why our server needs to be agnostic and our messaging system BBM needs to be agnostic,” Chen said. “We still need to be able to provide those true, end-to-end secure environments for companies and governments that need it, and regulated industry that need it.”
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