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5/17/2013
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BBM Vs. Google Hangouts: What's At Stake

BlackBerry and Google have both expanded their messaging services to competing platforms, but for different reasons.

BlackBerry 10: Visual Tour Of Smartphones, OS
BlackBerry 10: Visual Tour Of Smartphones, OS
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
BlackBerry on Tuesday announced that its BlackBerry Messenger product, long heralded as one of the company's defining services, would be available to Apple's iOS platform soon and to Google's Android platform later this summer. Similarly, Google on Wednesday completely overhauled its Google Talk app, changed the name, and made a separate version available for the iPhone.

Is playing nice with their competitors going to get BlackBerry and Google anywhere?

Some argue that BlackBerry Messenger, known as BBM, is BlackBerry's best chance of ensnaring customers. After all, the popular messaging service doesn't cost users anything, offers read receipts, and is secure. With BlackBerry 10, BlackBerry improved on BBM's foundation by endowing it with voice calls (via VoIP), video chats and even screen sharing. The app is a marvel for real-time communication between two people or even groups. It's also extremely sticky. Many customers stick with BlackBerry simply for BBM.

Why would BlackBerry give this app away to the competition? Because it has no choice.

[ For more Google I/O news, see Google I/O: Jelly Bean, Nexus Tablet, Project Glass. ]

The rise of competing over-the-top messaging apps has eroded the stickiness of BlackBerry Messenger. During the keynote address this week at the company's BlackBerry Live developer conference, CEO Thorsten Heins said that BBM has 60 million monthly users. That sounds like a lot, until you compare it to the competition. WhatsApp, a popular cross-platform messaging app, counts more than 200 million monthly users. Skype, another cross-platform messaging app, is even bigger, boasting 280 million monthly users. That's more than four times the size of BBM's active user base. WhatsApp and Skype have been able to achieve those numbers because they run on Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Windows Phone devices in addition to PCs.

If BlackBerry wants to grow its BBM user base, it needs to look beyond the walls of its meager platform, which recently sunk to fourth place among smartphone operating systems worldwide. Don't think for a second, however, that BlackBerry believes it will steal customers away from Android or iOS -- this is about keeping the customers it already has. If BlackBerry users can BBM their friends and colleagues who use Androids or iPhones, then perhaps they'll be less apt to switch away from BlackBerry.

It is noteworthy that BlackBerry chose not to make a version of BBM for Windows Phone, too. Clearly, it is targeting the number one and number two platforms for a reason: they have hundreds of millions of users. Microsoft has not revealed how many active users of Windows Phone exist, but surely the number doesn't compare to either Android or iOS.

But what about Google and its new Hangouts app? The app repackages the old Google Talk app (both on Android handsets/tablets and within Gmail/Google+) and modernizes it with new features. The unified app can handle messaging as well as video chats and works between handsets, tablets and PCs. Google also offered a version of the app to the iPhone, but not for the same reasons that BlackBerry expanded BBM. Google knows that iOS has a huge presence on the Web. Since the Web is where Google makes its money, Google wants to make sure as many people as possible are using its products and services rather than its competitors'. Google Hangouts for iOS isn't about expanding its user base or preventing defections; it's about getting more eyeballs on its ads.

Where BBM's expansion to Android and iOS might help BlackBerry retain some of its subscribers (and let's face it, it needs all the help it can get), Hangouts' expansion to the iPhone is a revenue control measure. Both have a chance of being successful while also enriching their users' communications needs.

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