Will Facetime be Apple’s BBM?

RIM has only recently noticed and begun promoting one of their features that has been maintaining and growing their user base – BBM or Blackberry Messenger. You can see some of their recent ads touting BBM here.

For those that don’t know, BBM is a built-in application that comes with every blackberry and lets you send messages to any other blackberry user who you add to your BBM list. This combines the functionality of SMS/text messaging with IM(instant messaging). Some other cool features are that you can add people to groups and send messages back/forth to each other. I will say that the one drawback to BBM is that adding friends is a bit complicated/cumbersome/clunky as you may need to know another blackberry user’s “PIN” which they have to figure out from their phone’s operating system. Additionally, sometimes the add a friend process seems to just hang with the connection to the other user not fully functional. Besides that though, BBM is cited by many a “crackberry” addict as one of the reasons they are loyal to the Blackberry brand. Here are the reasons why I think BBM is so powerful:

1. It’s free! SMS is costly – whether paying by the message or on any fixed or unlimited plan, it’s very expensive to send an SMS. This is particularly true for international texts. With BBM – it’s all free….

2. It’s exclusive – people who have blackberries get to feel like they’re in an exclusive club where they can send each other private messages that mere mortals (or Apple fanboys) can’t access.

3. Groups – this feature allows for a continuous conversation amongst a group of friends or colleagues. Great for making plans or talking trash. This concept is so powerful that a start-up (GroupMe) was just funded to replicate that feature for all other phones via SMS.

4. [virtually] Unlimited message length – SMS is notoriously limited to 160 characters based on its ancient standard (this is the reason for Twitter’s character limit). BBM messages can be up to 2,000 characters.

5. Threaded conversations – Conversations on BBM look like IM with the back/forth of a conversation displayed and the history clearly visible. This is an especially huge improvement (ironically) on how Blackberry handles SMS messages which are buried in a “unified” inbox.

6. Easy file transfers – it’s easy to send along a photo, video or even contact to one of your BBM contacts, all within the same BBM app.

7. Instant notifications – the fact that BBM notifications are instantaneous, just like SMS means it’s made specifically for things you want to tell someone right now, differentiating it from e-mail.

8. It’s free – the carriers did Blackberry a huge favor by making SMS so absurdly expensive. They have tried at some points to charge users for BBM messages, but RIM has won that fight.

BBM has become a huge and powerful network effect for RIM. It makes users want to keep their blackberries and attracts new users to the brand.

Ok – so Facetime going to be the BBM for the iPhone? On one hand, it certainly fits the mold. It’s a very cool and unique method to communicate with others via video chat. The UI is great and it’s very simple to set-up a video call. For now, it’s a closed network, so you can’t Facetime with anyone who doesn’t have an iPhone 4 (or now the new iPod touch). Here’s why I don’t think it will be quite as successful a network effect:

1. Text communication has eclipsed voice as the preferred means for most people. There are many theories about this, but text in some ways is more efficient. It has the potential to be asynchronous and it is certainly more private in public environments. Mostly though it probably lets us maintain the illusion that by “multitasking”, we are able to accomplish more. In any case, this is a major trend and I think that video goes the other way, it’s totally synchronous, you can’t (in good conscience) check your email or do something else while on a Facetime video chat with someone else.

2. Because of number 1 – I think that video chat via mobile will be a much less frequently used feature than any form of text communication (like BBM), so it won’t be seen as integral to one’s experience. Once the novelty factor wears off, I imagine it may be like, “so what?” or “my phone has video chat too.”

3. As I inferred in #2, I think that front facing cameras will become more prevalent in other devices and interoperable mobile video chat through Skype and other providers will become the norm. Apple will either open the access to their video chat platform or suffer the consequences.

So this begs another question– why didn’t Apple launch the iPhone with iChat, it’s native Mac OS IM client – this could have been their BBM, right? My theory is that At&t bargained hard so that they could charge many users $20/month for unlimited SMS on top of the $25-$30 they charge per month for data…. I think this is an argument Apple should have fought harder on as it’s one of the only things that is allowing Blackberry to cling to its consumer user base. I’m not sure that it will be enough for RIM though as Apple has another network effect that I think will be more powerful over time and it’s called…. the App Store.

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3 responses to “Will Facetime be Apple’s BBM?

  1. All is not lost on this becoming a distinct possibility. As Apple’s contract with AT&T comes up, this may be something Apple puts into effect once they don’t have to play nice with an exclusive partner. In addition, as more carriers such as Verizon come into the picture, more players mean less power held by one. So great points in this post, certainly time for Facetime and iChat to both be available to have a dual solution and create those network effects.

  2. @Lou Definitely a good point, the dynamics will change when Apple has more carriers, but not sure which way they’ll change. Apple got a lot of concessions from At&t in return for exclusivity… imagine they won’t be able to get all those from others.

  3. Perhaps, but I tend to think Apple gains power by having multiple players, none of them can afford to not have the iPhone as they see plain as day the sales figures. I think Apple will have freedom to do a lot with the technology, the subsidy removal/reduction will be the key issue for consumers to deal with.

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