April 24, 2011 8:03 pm

Messenger delivers BlackBerry with a loyal following

Many mobile industry observers are ready to write off the BlackBerry as it faces growing competition from Apple’s iPhone and touchscreen devices using Google’s Android software.

Gartner, the analyst group, forecasts BlackBerry’s global smartphone market share to fall from 16 per cent today to 11 per cent in 2015, behind a resurgent Microsoft and its Windows Phone, while Android rockets from 23 per cent to 49 per cent over the same period.

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But BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has a secret weapon – one that until a couple of years ago even its own executives failed to realise it had.

Teenagers and university students are buying BlackBerrys in droves for a single feature – and it is not e-mail.

BlackBerry Messenger – or “BBM” – is an instant-messaging application only available on RIM devices.

Superficially similar to SMS text messaging, it is both faster and cheaper, coming free without the need for a data package.

It is used by more than 39m people worldwide with usage up six times over the past 12 months, making it a real threat to operators’ text-message revenues in some markets.

“BBM has been a huge success story for RIM,” says Pete Cunningham, analyst at Canalyst. “A couple of years ago, BlackBerrys were only used in the corporate space. Then they caught a wave of coolness.”

Particularly popular in the UK, Indonesia, South Africa, Venezuela and the Netherlands, celebrities such as musicians Adele and The Saturdays are among BBM’s many fans. “There has been a halo effect in those markets where BBM has really taken off,” says Patrick Spence, RIM’s vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

According to GfK, the market researcher, BlackBerry was the UK’s biggest-selling smartphone last year. Mr Spence says BBM is the most significant reason that consumers now outnumber business users of BlackBerry.

RIM is hoping that its entrenchment in the youth market will spread back up to older customers and prevent people from switching to rivals.

“It’s evolved almost virally,” Mr Spence says. “It’s become its own cultural phenomenon. These things do fly under the radar . . . It’s easy to look back and say: ‘weren’t we smart’ but when we put BlackBerry out there, users determine how they are going to use it and what is ultimately the driver.”

BBM grew out of a rudimentary service called “pin to pin”, which used a BlackBerry ID number to send short messages.

A few presentational improvements and BBM was born – but largely ignored by corporate users, many of whose IT departments still shut it off because it is hard to monitor and archive for regulatory compliance purposes.

While it is now more prominent in BlackBerry marketing, BBM took off “very much before RIM saw it on their radar”, says Graham Brown, director at Mobile Youth, a consultancy. “Teens and students were picking up BlackBerrys as hand-me-downs because parents were up-grading and started playing around and exploring.”

Now kids are teaching their parents how to use BBM because they don’t want to incur text-message charges.

RIM is building on that opportunity by providing new “gifting” capabilities in BBM, allowing people to send each other talktime vouchers or applications.

Other virtual items such as music tracks are expected to follow.

RIM is also opening up BBM to third-party developers, allowing them to build other services on top of or incorporating its messaging system.

People could chat while they play a game of chess on their BlackBerrys or share what book they are reading on the device, with potential for opening it up to marketers.

This BBM “social platform” is still in beta testing mode and RIM remains cautious.

“The beauty of BBM is in its simplicity – it’s a clean, tight network,” says Mr Spence. “We are very careful about keeping the user experience.”

Tech-blog rumours suggest that RIM is also considering opening up BBM to other mobile platforms, through an iPhone or Android app. RIM declined to comment.

There is also the threat of authoritarian regimes clamping down on BBM.

“It is BlackBerry’s Achilles heel because some regulatory authorities seem to hate it,” says Richard Windor, mobile analyst at Nomura. “We suspect that BBM is a major cause of the security issues in UAE and India.”

If they forced RIM to remove BBM, “part of the stickiness of the BlackBerry user experience could evaporate”, he adds.

For now, however, that stickiness remains one of RIM’s unsung assets. Indeed, BBM is so popular that users’ Pins required to start a chat have been spotted on car numberplates in Dubai and are feverishly swapped by strangers all over the world on BlackBerry’s Facebook fan page.

“There is almost a brand around it in and of itself,” says Mr Spence. “It has that cachet in the same way that BlackBerry has on the corporate e-mail side.”

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