BlackBerry Messenger 6.0 turns the popular app from an IM service into a social platform, with benefits for BlackBerry app developers.
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Slideshow: RIM BlackBerry PlayBook Teardownr
Research In Motion announced BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) 6.0, a significant shift that takes one of the BlackBerry smartphone's most popular native applications, and turns it from being a mere instant messaging service into a social platform for other BlackBerry applications that take advantage of the new BBM SDK. RIM demonstrated some of the new BBM capabilities at BlackBerry World this spring, and while this may not cause a developer stampede to write BlackBerry apps, it sure could benefit those who already do.
RIM says that there are 45 million BBM users, and that it activates 2 million new BBM accounts each month. The company says 70% of BBM customers use it daily and that those users send more than 100 billion messages each month. In other words, it's been an overwhelming hit. Now RIM is wisely leveraging that popularity in a way that will not only make mobile app developers happy, but also create new app-embedded social experiences for its customers. Real-time instant messaging may not be the bedrock of your day, but this is a feature other mobile platform vendors will want to emulate. It is also further demonstration of RIM's desire to create an ecosystem around what it calls Super Apps, or applications that become part of the underlying system infrastructure on a BlackBerry device.
For example, developers can add the ability to use BBM from within an app to invite a friend to download that app, with a mere line of code. RIM calls this viral distribution. Apps can also take advantage of BBM profile information, including the user's name, avatar, and status, for a more customized application experience. Similarly, an application can update BBM profile information. For example, if you're listening to a song in a music app, that song can become part of a BBM status update that all of your BBM friends can see.
Apps can also take advantage of a custom profile box. This box allows for more frequent updates, say for when you're reading items in a news app. BBM friends who view that update can use that information to take them to the same application and read the news item as well. RIM calls this "inherent viral distribution," which is Canadian for "nifty." The idea here, then, isn't just to create more rapid updates, but to do so in an application context, explained Brian Zubert, RIM's team lead for developer relations
Any and all of these application-context situations can also trigger BBM friends to download apps they don't have; another boost for developers. Zubert said that most applications experience an initial usage spike when the user is enamored of the new app. Usage then levels off or disappears altogether, presumably as the user moves on to the next shiny app. One of the goals RIM has with BBM 6.0 is to change that behavior. "Nothing breeds retention like friends driving you back to apps," he said. In many ways, Zubert said, the BlackBerry push service was all about driving content to users and driving those users back to an app. The same concept applies to BBM 6.0.
Apps can also leverage BBM's chat features. Zubert offered the example of a virtual book club, where two BlackBerry users are reading the same book, and chat about it through BBM, right from inside the e-book app. These chats can happen anonymously, meaning you don't have to be BBM friends to use BBM within apps, say for game playing or discussion boards. "Friends of convenience," RIM calls this. Those guys have a phrase for everything.
RIM also believes these capabilities will drive people to extend their BBM world (or social graph, in cool kids' parlance). Apps can also attempt to bring friends together, based on knowing who the app users are, and what their BlackBerry IDs are. This strikes me as a little creepy, but Zubert reminded me that you can go into permissions management and disable this sort of thing on a per-app basis; for instance, you can restrict an app from accessing your contact list. Zubert assured me that an app would have to get your permission to even send out a new BBM friend request.
BBM 6.0 has been in beta since January, and is available now in the BlackBerry App World. Several applications take advantage of these new capabilities, including FourSquare, Wikitude, Poynt, Huffington Post, and Backgammon King, among others.
Here's a demonstration of BBM functionality in FourSquare:
The BBM integration in Wikitude World Browser starts at about the 1:20 mark of this video demonstration below:
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