Yesterday the geek world was all a-twitter (heh) about the announcement from Blackberry – neé Research In Motion – that Blackberry Messenger was coming in app form to both iOS and Android this summer. Thorsten Heims put on a brave front, and tried to spin this as a disruptive and preemptive sort of a move, but it is nearly impossible to look at this as anything but a tacit admission that while the smartphone wars may rage on, they are going to rage without Blackberry as any sort of relevant player.
There are only three possibilities as to what the Blackberry brain trust is thinking here, and how the move will play out. To wit:
- They are going to offer the BBM app for free on competing platforms. The thinking could only be that people who are abandoning Blackberry will somehow decide to stay if their friends who are already on the other dominant platforms can message them on BBM. This is inane at best – those friends are already either using an OS-agnostic way to chat, or they aren’t bothering at all. This particular horse has already left the barn and nobody cares. Worse, BBM is one of the last exclusive functions of the Blackberry platform, and one that carriers are still paying a premium to have access to. Why give away a revenue stream, no matter how thin, to solve a problem that has long passed from “challenge” to “moot point”?
- They plan to offer the app for free and charge a subscription fee – basically emulating the way that BBM works on real Blackberry devices now (albeit with the subscription fee buried in the monthly carrier fees). This is an automatic fail. Users already have instant messaging, Google talk, Jabber, FaceTime … a veritable host of messaging services including real-time video chat, for free. The other side of the coin, charging for the app and offering the connectivity for free, meets the same fate. People will gladly pay for something innovative and cool and useful. People will not pay if they already have that something for free.
- They are going to pony up the app and the basic connectivity for free, then offer an in-app purchase or subscription for “premium” features – BBM video or screen sharing. This is the model that startups like Dropbox and Evernote have built wildly successful businesses on, and it is a proven winner. It would be a killer idea here … provided you have a time machine and could go back to 2008 to roll this out. It could have set the mobile world on it’s ear, and given RIM a running start on transitioning from a badly-dated handset maker to a cutting-edge mobile tools and services provider. They could have created and owned a new business space with literally no competition, a built-in base of loyal business users with big and long-term investments in infrastructure, and the same sort of head start on everyone else that Apple forged for themselves with the first iPhone. But now? Like everything else in Blackberry’s quickly-dwindling hand, it’s simply too late. Everyone else has video chat, so that’s not much of a selling point. And the screen sharing, while of marginal utility on the screen of a pocket computer, is one of the very few things that Blackberry still has to try and differentiate themselves from the handset makers who have eaten up their market share and profits. Is compromising that for a few bucks really worth the play at this point in the game?
No matter how you work this one out, the end game comes out a stalemate at best, and a stalemate does Blackberry no good at all. Either the movers and shakers at Blackberry still have no clue as to why the mobile computing business has trampled them and left them writhing in the dust, or they have finally seen the writing on the wall and are now just throwing things out there in sheer desperation.
My money is on the desperation.