After a recent false start, and years of it being exclusive to BlackBerry phones, the BBM app is now available for both Android and iOS. The cynical amongst us could see it as the last gasp from a dying company, struggling to find a way to remain relevant in the face of popular apps such as WhatsApp and Viber. It’s not even unique to manufacturers either, as we’ve got iMessage on our iPhones, and can Hangout on just about any platform going.
So why should we care about BBM? Well, it is one of the original mobile instant messengers, so BlackBerry has had many years to perfect the system, and it certainly has been a key selling point for BlackBerry smartphones. Now, we can all enjoy its benefits, almost regardless of which smartphone platform we use.
Once the app has downloaded, you need to make a BlackBerry account, which involves providing an email address and a few personal details. There’s the chance to add in a profile picture, a custom name, and add status messages. The setup process is quick, but on release BlackBerry decided to stagger the rollout, and new users had to wait for its approval before the app would work.
With all this done, new BBM users are issued with a PIN. At the height of BlackBerry’s popularity, this was quite the status symbol, and few gave it out to just anyone. Today, as we’ll see, it doesn’t have quite the same draw. BBM provides real-time chat, just like WhatsApp, with either a single person or a group. There’s also the option to send files, invite others to an existing conversation, or “ping” someone to check if they’re around.
Visually, BBM on the iPhone is quite swish, but more in keeping with iOS 6 than iOS 7. Menus can be slid in from either side of the main screen, and then swiped aside with a gesture. Along the base of the screen are buttons for chats, contacts and groups. Open up a chat and you can attach a picture, post a smiley, or add in other contacts.
Chatting is, as you’d expect, a very pleasant experience. Messages go instantly, and replies seem to be the same, plus sending pictures is quick and easy. It’s a shame there’s no option to resize an image before sending one, but the 3MB picture we whizzed over to a contact didn’t take long to be delivered. Notifications appear on the iPhone’s lock screen when a new message comes in, but they weren’t all that reliable during our testing.
Compared to WhatsApp, BBM fairs very well. Despite it not really fitting in, visually, with iOS 7, it still looks cleaner than WhatsApp. There is one big difference between the two though. When I open WhatsApp, a variety of my friends are ready to chat, but when I open BBM, it’s a complete ghost town. Going back to the PIN, because I don’t know anyone with a BlackBerry phone anymore, I shared it through Twitter and Facebook, hoping someone out there would be willing to help out. Now, either nobody cared (a distinct possibility, I admit), or nobody was using it. The BBM PIN is no longer the thing to have.
BlackBerry has made a point of saying the new app has been downloaded 20 million times since its release, which is a fantastic amount. However, when I don’t know any of them, BBM becomes redundant. So where are these 20 million? BlackBerry’s primary market these days is Africa, where it has heavily promoted BBM’s cross-platform nature over the past few months, and we’d imagine a high percentage are from that region.
My lack of BBM contacts probably won’t be unique, and BlackBerry will be relying on those who want to use it inviting friends over, hence the ease with which this can be done in the app itself. It’s a gamble, and proof the app should have been released years ago, and it’s also a great shame. BBM is an easy to use, reliable, well featured instant messenger app. There’s absolutely no reason not to use it, but unfortunately, there’s no compelling reason to use it over one of the established alternatives either.