BlackBerry will this weekend take a historic fork in the road as it makes what was once its distinguishing application, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), available for download to Android and Apple smartphone users.
Announced as an intention several weeks ago, Android 4.x users are expected to get access to the app on 19 September at 12 Noon BST from Google’s Play, followed 12 hours later fro iPhone users from Apple’s App Store.
The move is an extraordinary moment for Blackberry and given that BBM messaging will be free also between users running the app, potentially disruptive for the mobile market as a whole if it can grab new users. There are currently no plans for a Windows Phone app.
The firm’s strategy of turning BBM into a larger social platform explains why it has taken the interesting if risky decision to untether its messaging system from its own declining hardware and software platform.
“Later this year, BBM Channels will provide a forum for active, real conversations between you and the people, brands, celebrities, artists, service providers, communities and more, that matter to you,” blogged BlackBerry’s Donny Halliwell.
“By creating a Channel, individuals and brands can engage their friends and communities in conversations sparked by their thoughts, ideas and passions,” he said, underlining BlackBerry’s hope that BBM can become a mobile social network under the radar of operators as well as Google and Apple.
Since the company announced the move some time ago, it has been generally well received by the industry.
“The news that BBM is to appear on the Android platform suggests that the writing may be on the wall for BlackBerry as we know it,” said AppSense chief development officer, Keith Turnbull at the time.
BBM’s managed security environment could be another big lure for some users; BlackBerry will only make money if business users continue to pay license fees to use the server software, underwriting free consumer access.
“BlackBerry’s greatest strength remains its popularity amongst enterprises due to a strong reputation for robust security. Recent independent research commissioned by AppSense revealed that only 12 per cent of UK enterprises saw BlackBerry’s as a potential security risk compared with 63 per cent of businesses believing that Android a high security risk,” said Turnbull.
This security isn't as watertight as might have once been assumed, with a German newspaper recently claiming that there is evidence among the leaks made by Edward Snowden that the NSA might be able to access messages sent through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES).
Elsewhere the news has been dire, with US media has reported that the firm is preparing to lay off 40 percent of its 12,700 workforce, a grudging confirmation by the old-style BlackBerry is now in deep trouble.
The company isn’t giving up that easily, this week announcing its most powerful smartphone to date, the Z30, due for release later in 2013.