BlackBerry Live 2013: Can BBM threaten OTT services?

As BlackBerry takes its BBM messaging to Android and iOS handsets, can it take on OTT providers such as Skype and WhatsApp?

BlackBerry this week announced plans to take its messaging solution, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), across multiple mobile platforms.

The messaging tool – which BlackBerry claims to have 60 million monthly active users, sending 10 billion messages a day – will be available on iOS and Android by the summer, with other operating systems (OSs) following later in 2013.

Thorsten Heins, CEO of BlackBerry, revealed the move at BlackBerry Live in Orlando, Florida. Heins said 50 million BBM users were on the tool for 90 minutes per day, and over half of messages received were read in 20 seconds.

BlackBerry's announcement raised a number of questions surrounding handset competition and whether BlackBerry intended to compete with other over-the-top (OTT) messaging services, such as WhatsApp and Skype.

Andrew Bocking, executive vice-president of software product management and ecosystems at BlackBerry, said: “If you look at the support for iOS and Android with BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10.1, it’s an acknowledgment of the heterogeneous environment we’re living in, so supporting our services across those platforms in this environment will allow us to service our customers.

“It’s also the first thing our customers have asked for, if you look at it from an enterprise perspective. As well as BBM, they’re looking at the support from us, and we’re really delivering on what they’ve asked for.”

While BlackBerry has not disclosed any statistics on business usage on BBM, Bocking said it was “a common-use case, especially BBM Groups” which BlackBerry is claimed was being used in small businesses.

“BBM as an OTT cross-platform service might make much more sense,” said Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca. “BlackBerry has a strong track record of adoption with BBM and a loyal base for the app - even if some would prefer different hardware.”

“However, many hardware-focused companies struggle when making some of their software available for competitive platforms. It will have to create suitable separation in marketing messages and route to market to ensure prospective users are convinced it is in it for the long term.”

BBM threat to OTT competitors

iPhone and Android users currently using apps such as Skype and WhatsApp will have a new service to consider, so could BlackBerry become a threat to these companies?

In April 2013, WhatsApp claimed to have more users than Twitter’s 200 million, sending eight billion inbound and 12 billion outbound messages per day. If BlackBerry users alone are sending 10 billion messages, when BBM rolls out to other platforms this may attract users away from these other OTT services.

“Opening up BBM to Android and iOS might help to drive more device sales, appealing to those users who are interested in the free messaging service but had not considered it before because most of their friends were not on BBM,” said Carolina Milanesi, research vice-president of consumer technologies and markets at Gartner.

It’s the first thing our customers have asked for if you look at it from an enterprise perspective

Andrew Bocking, executive vice-president of software product management and ecosystems at BlackBerry

“But I really do not see this as BlackBerry positioning BBM as a WhatsApp.”

Bocking added: “We are great partners with Skype and WhatsApp - Skype is now available on Q10 and Z10 devices - we’ve been focused on building great partnerships and we’re continuing to do that.”

“We don’t view them as competitors. We see this as a broad market of opportunity and we think mobile messaging is going to be a broad opportunity for many partners.”

While BlackBerry may say it is not releasing this software as a direct competitor in the OTT space, some claim the move is a strategy to put the company back into the spotlight as a leading mobile force.

Social media platform

During the BlackBerry Live keynote, the company also  announced an upgrade to BBM to include a social engagement platform, allowing users to connect with brands, artists and communities in real time – not unlike Twitter.

Named BlackBerry Channels, the platform will provides companies with a marketing opportunity to communicate with fully opted-in BlackBerry users, posting content with BBM. Bocking said BlackBerry will monetise Channels using a “traditional social media business model” including sponsored posts, invitations and advertising for brands who wish to increase their subscriptions.  

This move into social media has so far got brands such as Mercedes and artists including the Goo Goo Dolls and Alicia Keys on board.

That BlackBerry is investing in the platform and extending it to other platforms suggests the company sees it as a means of differentiating the brand.

Heins said offering BBM to other platforms now comprises a statement of confidence.

“It’s so strong and the response has been so good, we are confident the time is right for BBM to become an independent multiplatform messaging solution,” he said.

Releasing a new OS and multiple handsets is an obvious way to try and regain customers after a rough couple of years for the company. However, it could be the little changes the company makes to its well-respected features that makes the big difference to BlackBerry’s future.

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