BlackBerry users now have access to a new feature which increases the functionality of their handsets. The popular BBM free-messaging feature has been expanded to include BBM Voice, a service offering free voice calls over VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol)
The upgrade, called BBM7, is being made available to users of BlackBerry devices which run BlackBerry OS 7 and above, with a roll-out to some earlier versions of the software possibly coming in the future. Here we take a closer look at the new service and how it fits into the BlackBerry platform as a whole.
BBM is a free service which allows users of BlackBerry handsets to send messages to each other and has been a popular feature of RIM’s smartphone for some time, with over 60 million people now registered worldwide. Although now aped by services such as Apple’s iMessege, BBM remains one of the most distinctive and recognisable features of the BlackBerry brand.
Conversations appear in the chat window format now the commonplace within smartphone messaging interfaces and users can create their own profile and even add a photo of themselves. The main selling point of BBM however is that it’s free to use, something which has made it very appealing to the teenage demographic.
Alongside voice calls, BBM has received a number of other new features with the BBM7 upgrade including additional emoticons and a more developed system for backing up account information.
BBM Voice calls can be initiated directly or accessed by tapping a key during a BBM chat. The service offers a split-screen interface so that users will be able to do other things while chatting, such as sending a picture or a message to another user.
Statuses of other BBM users are displayed in the app so that users will be able to see when others are available for voice calls. BBM Voice is also compatible with existing BlackBerry peripheral devices – such as Bluetooth headsets – which means that W-iFi voice calls can be made with the same ease as regular voice calls.
BBM Voice could be incredibly useful when travelling abroad as a way of avoiding potentially huge data roaming charges. Connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot in a hotel or café would allow free calls to be made to other BlackBerry users, getting around roaming charges applied by networks.
However, the service could also have a widespread appeal amongst users in the UK as that teenage demographic we mentioned earlier may well be using handsets on pay as you go deals and BBM Voice is a effective way of avoiding call charges.
Whereas BBM works over a 3G connection, BBM Voice requires Wi-Fi, although voice calls can be continued via text chat should a wireless connection be lost. There is also no support for video calling as there is with Apple’s FaceTime, but considering that few BlackBerry devices have the front-facing cameras required it to take advantage of this function, the feature would be almost redundant.
Also, since BBM Voice only works within the BBM messaging system the number of people who can be contacted is limited to other BlackBerry users. Within the UK, RIM’s share of the smartphone market has been falling steadily and, according to a recent YouGov survey, only 17% of UK smartphone users have a BlackBerry device.
BBM Voice is available as a feature of the BBM7 upgrade package RIM is in the process of pushing out. At the moment, BBM7 is only available in a beta test version from the BlackBerry Beta Zone website, with no announcement so far as to when a full version will be made available.
Beta versions tend to be aimed more at software developer and tech-minded experts and are not final, versions so there is a possibility that some users may experience problems with the upgrade.
The software can only be downloaded via an over-the-air update at the moment and we found that the easiest way to do it is to navigate to the BlackBerry Beta Zone from the handset’s browser, register for beta testing, then download the new version of BBM from there.
A particulary interesting facet of BM Voice is that it signals RIM’s intention to continue pushing out new features for BlackBerry users ahead of the expected launch of its new BB10 platform in January.
BB10 will not be compatible with existing BlackBerry smartphones and there was a risk of existing users being left behind. However, it now seems that older BlackBerry devices have life left in them yet.