The fact that BlackBerry will launch its popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service on rival platforms iOS and Android in the coming months is not a surprise. The real shock was that it had waited this long to compete into what is now a very, very crowded space.
There are two ways to look at this… How do the 76m BlackBerry users worldwide message friends and colleagues on other devices? The answer is simple: WhatsApp. That workaround has been there ever since customers started switching to other smartphones.
In fact, WhatsApp’s practically won the race given that it is available on practically every phone (Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Nokia (including its S40 Asha devices) and, of course, BlackBerry). Even the most hardcore BlackBerry fans use WhatsApp.
If you look at it the other way round, the answer is the same. Anyone on, say, an iPhone will be able to use WhatsApp to message friends on BlackBerry (if any are still using it).
But its not only WhatsApp that’s crowded out competitors. There are dozens of messaging services, and many are dominant in certain demographic or geographic markets (some are popular in Asian markets and not elsewhere, for example).
These are the obviously popular services, and by registered users, all five are larger than BBM:
- WeChat 300m +
- WhatsApp 200m+
- Viber 200m +
- Nimbuzz 150m+
- iMessage 140m+
- Kakao 82m +
- BBM 55m +
(*These are all the most recent officially-reported numbers for each service)
The problem is not necessarily only how much bigger than BBM the competing services are, its that BBM has been stagnant at the 50m-55m user level for at least the last 24 months.
Sure, the cost of switching is almost zero, but the incentive to switch is almost invisible. Why would an iPhone user install Yet Another Messaging App on his/her device? (and this assumes that Apple approves the app, not that it has any reason not to)
We have seen this movie before: in the desktop instant messenger space. The popularity of MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Skype soared or waned depending on how many of your friends/colleagues were using it. There were geographic peculiarities too.
A feature that isn’t available on rival services would make BBM instantly attractive (and spur on a copycat rush from rivals). But all indications are that BlackBerry will ship a stripped down first version of BBM in the next two months.
BlackBerry may be successful in attracting a few million more users to BBM (on other platforms), especially in countries and regions where it is the dominant smartphone. For that number to get much more beyond 100m is going to take something unexpected (That’s not to say its impossible).
Something to consider: Many of its rivals in the space only passed the 50m mark in the past 12-18 months. Such is the rapidity of change and growth in the market.
We’re left at the same point we are when one reviews its recent Z10 and Q10 devices… If BBM was available cross-platform when rumours first started surfacing in 2011, it’d probably have 200m users right now.
You cannot help but wonder what might’ve been had BlackBerry shipped any of these products 18 (or even 12!) months ago…
* Hilton Tarrant contributes to ‘Broadband’, a column on Moneyweb covering the ICT sector in South Africa. He hopes he’s wrong, but he wouldn’t bet on that.