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RIM Introduces BBM 7.0 With Voice Calls Over Wi-Fi; Our Take

Research In Motion, the maker of BlackBerry Smartphones, has announced the launch of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) version 7 with BBM Voice feature that allows users to make a voice call to other BBM users over Wi-Fi connection.

Features: The BBM Voice feature is directly built into the BBM app and users need to open up a chat window and click on the call button to make a voice call over Wi-Fi. What’s interesting is, once on a voice call, users can continue to send text, images, and other multimedia over BBM. Apart from that, BBM also provides a visual indicator that shows when contacts are available for a voice call. BBM Voice is also compatible with bluetooth, wired headset or users can also use BlackBerry’s speakerphone. While BBM Voice works over Wi-Fi it should be noted that the call will disconnect in case a user receives a cellular call.

BBM 7.0 also brings integration with user’s BlackBerry ID, which will back up the user’s BBM profile, groups and contacts so that they can automatically restore them in case they switch to a new BlackBerry device.

Compatibility: BBM 7.0  is compatible with BlackBerry devices running OS 6.0 and higher, however, RIM plans to introduce it to older phones with BlackBerry OS 5.0 as well.

Availability: BBM 7.0  is currently available in Beta for BlackBerry smartphones and can be downloaded for free from BlackBerry Beta Zone. Users need to signup with the BlackBerry Beta Zone in order to download the the app.

Our Take: While RIM’s smartphone market share has been on a gradual decline in the US, it still holds a strong user base in developing countries including India where VoIP based calls are not frowned upon by telecom operators. However, there have been security concerns around VoIP services, and in 2009, India’s Intelligence Bureau had asked the Department of Telecom (DoT) to block VoIP services to and from the country, until a mechanism has been put into place to track these calls. Confusion on the exact Internet Telephony policy remained, even as the Department of Telecom issued orders to block foreign SIP (Session Initiation Protocols) to various ISPs. After being at loggerheads with the Indian government for a long time, over interception of e-mails and BBM messages, RIM had reportedly set up a server in Mumbai, India to provide security agencies access to its BlackBerry Messenger services. We’re not sure if these voice calls will also be interceptable.

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RIM certainly wants to stay relevant in a fast changing smartphone landscape. The company’s already lagging behind, after the release of its next gen smartphone OS, BB10 was delayed till January 2013. It might also prevent BB loyalists from switching to the iPhone which also offers Apple’s proprietary data based voice call service, Facetime, across iOS (and Mac OS) devices. Recently, Microsoft, which bought Skype for $8.5 billion, rebuilt its app for Windows Phone 8 integrating Skype contacts within the Windows Phone 8’s People Hub making it deeply integrated within the OS. Recently, RIM reported that it has 80 million subscribers across the globe, and 60 million of them use BBM. If RIM is able to convert most of its current BBM users to the new version, BBM Voice could effectively receive a large user base for its service. Since BBM users can only call/text other BBM users, the value of the service is a bit limiting, however, its strong user base compensates for the same.

BBM also competes with cross platform messaging apps such as Whatsapp, Viber, WeChat, Bharti Softbank’s Hike. It’s interesting to note that Indian Telecom operators, instead of blocking apps based on data service, as in the US, are embracing the change, at least when it comes to messaging apps. While we know WhatsApp, a data messaging app available on Android, iOS, Symbian, Series 40, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone, has been eating up telcos’ SMS market, telcos such as Reliance recently launched a prepaid plan ‘WhatsApp Plan’ offering free Facebook and WhatsApp access for Rs 16/month  for all Reliance GSM subscribers. While the BBM voice service, in its current avatar only works on WiFi, RIM might enable 3G in the future.

We have already seen Indian startups like Dineout.co.in allowing users to book restaurants over BBM. BBM 7’s new voice calling feature and deep integration in the OS can result into interesting adoption of the service by third parties.

Anupam Saxena also contributed to this post

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