Most companies would kill for 10 million app downloads, especially if it's widely believed to be on a one-way trip to the morgue. The otherwise moribund BlackBerry hit this mark last week, claiming 10 million downloads of its BBM app, which finally rolled out to iOS and Android users after last month's false start. Despite its dwindling market, BBM is understandably popular among BlackBerry users— it's long been one of the few personal apps for the device, and it's not like other messaging options are available on the platform.
Still, the notion of a cross-platform BBM had strong emotional appeal, and it was apparently a key issue in co-founder Jim Balsillie's departure from BlackBerry earlier this year. Balsillie believed it would save the company, while CEO Thorsten Heins thought it would distract from the need to fix BlackBerry's smartphone platform. Heins won, but users didn't adopt the new BlackBerry 10 platform, despite decent reviews. Now we're back to BBM-as-savior.
Unfortunately, BBM won't save BlackBerry either. Lots of cross-platform IM apps are out there, and BBM simply doesn't stand out. In fact, due to its poor setup, it stands back.
My colleague Serdar Yegulalp and I both tried BBM this week, after BlackBerry granted us early access. Although the BBM app is available for free download for Android and iOS devices, BlackBerry is rationing access to the service, presumably to ramp up the network to handle demand.
Unfortunately, it's not working. Yegulalp and I both waited for hours for our apps to register themselves once we signed in via our BlackBerry ID credentials. Our invites to each other to initiate chatting — you must first provide your PIN to the person you want to chat with — sat for half a day in the bowels of BlackBerry's servers before they were finally delivered to us. And the service went dead for us mere hours after we got to use it, though it came back up later.
No wonder BlackBerry was rationing access — and it still didn't work!
Even if you chalk it up to poor capacity planning or a panicked release, the BBM app itself is awkward to set up, doesn't connect well to your contacts, and at the end of the day offers the same basic IM functionality as everyone else — maybe even less at this rate.
The PIN requirement is awkward for several reasons. First, who's going to remember a random string of characters? Maybe BlackBerry does that to avoid name collisions, but it's still problematic. As a result, you can't easily tell people how to initiate a chat. The app can send emails to people with that PIN; they then click a link that opens a browser to a BlackBerry service and sends an invite to the BBM app to connect the two users. That's an inelegant and roundabout method.
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