BlackBerry's free Messenger service is being expanded to work with iOS and Android devices.
Analysts regarded the move -- announced today at BlackBerry Live -- as mostly positive, since it could help an improving BlackBerry expand its reach beyond its own new Z10 and Q10 smartphone customers.
Today, there are 60 million BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) customers, a tiny fraction of the number of messages sent via Facebook or Twitter. But BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins said BBM users are very active, sending 10 billion messages a day, and half the messages received are read within 20 seconds.
Opening up BBM to iOS 6 devices and above and Android Ice Cream Sandwich devices and above will expand BBM's reach, Heins said.
"BBM is so great that it's too good to keep only to ourselves,"Heins said during an upbeat keynote presentation at the event, which is mainly for BlackBerry developers and partners. "Why now? It's a statement of confidence, that BlackBerry 10 is strong and the response is so good that it's time that BBM become multi-platform."
BBM's interoperability with Android and iOS is now in beta, and will launch commercially this summer, Heins said. At first, only text messaging will be available to individuals and groups on other platforms. Features already available in BlackBerry 10 on BBM such as voice and video and screen sharing will be added later this year, with updates every two to four weeks.
Heins also announced a new BBM feature called channels, which allows Twitter-like functions to find groups of BBM users, much as Twitter uses hashtags to allow users to view comments about common themes. BlackBerry announced it will offer channels around its celebrity endorser, Alicia Keys, as well as Formula One racing fans, among others.
BBM started as a text messaging service, but it now runs over the data channel, not the separate text channel. As such, it is not quite like Facebook or Twitter, because it doesn't operate in a public cloud, meaning that you have to manually enter a friend's ID to connect. "Think of BBM as a private Facebook or Twitter," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "BBM has morphed into much more than texting, since it now includes video chat, screen sharing, music and audio."
While BBM is largely unknown in the U.S., it is especially popular in Asian countries and the Middle East, where BlackBerry continues to have a strong customer base. Overall, BlackBerry has 74 million subscribers globally.
The new BlackBerry Q5 qwerty phone also announced today will be sold in emerging markets, where the BBM service is especially popular, said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.
Milanesi and Gold both said moving BBM to other platforms is a smart move; other analysts were less positive.
Rather than competing with Facebook or Twitter, BlackBerry is more interested in letting potential customers know that they can buy a BlackBerry device and also communicate with their friends on iOS and Android hardware, Milanesi said. "Now if I can talk to everybody, BlackBerry might seem more attractive to me, because BBM is free," she said. "It makes sense."
However, in a mini-debate with Milanesi on Twitter, analyst Bob Egan of The Sepharim Group, asked: "Do you really think opening up another version of text messaging is an incentive for people to buy a [BB] device? Really?"
Later, Egan said it might be one reason to buy a BlackBerry phone, but not the only reason.
Gold laid out several reasons for why multi-platform BBM is significant. "First, BBM is far more secure that other messaging platforms, although it remains to be seen how secure it is on other platforms than BlackBerry," he said.
BlackBerry can also generate revenue for every message sent, Gold added, and will gain insight on how those on other platforms use their devices to send messages.
"BBM is moving to be more than just another messenger," Gold said. "It's now a platform with APIs and an ecosystem, adding apps on top of the BBM engine. In that respect, opening to other platforms allows the whole ecosystem to grow, and a bigger ecosystem means potentially bigger revenue generation for third parties and BlackBerry."
In a related announcement Tuesday, BlackBerry also unveiled BlackBerry Enterprise Instant Messaging 3.0, a free update that allows users of BlackBerry 10 smartphones to securely communicate over Microsoft Lync, Microsoft Office Communication Service or IBM Lotus Sametime.
The Enterprise IM 3.0 works with BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10.1, an update for back-office BES servers also announced today.
Also at BlackBerry Live, singer Alicia Keys announced a BlackBerry global women's initiative, which includes a scholarship program to inspire more women to enter careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Full, four-year scholarships will go to outstanding women with a particular interest or aptitude in mobile computing, said Keys, who was named as BlackBerry's global creative director in January.
BlackBerry will also mentor each of the scholarship winners.
Keys ticked off some well-known stats about the dearth of women in IT, noting that only 25% of U.S. IT jobs are held by women, even though more women graduate from college than men. Also, more than 55% of BlackBerry customers are women, she said.
"Women are underrepresented in the fields of science and technology and we feel strongly that it's time to drive a change," she said.
The deadline for applying for scholarships for the fall term is June 26. More information is available at www.blackberry.com/scholars.
This article, BlackBerry Messenger is expanding to iOS and Android, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.