BlackBerry is trying to build on the popularity of its free BlackBerry Messenger app. On Wednesday, the struggling mobile device maker announced it is launching a new mobile social network called BBM Channels.
Each channel is a page of messages and updates that connect to a given BlackBerry ID, a one-to-many broadcasting format that is being compared to Twitter. Messages can be up to 400 characters, and can be limited to one's BBM contacts or opened to other users.
Comments can be limited or subject to approval, and chats with non-contacts can be turned off.
In its rollout, the BBM Channels service is targeted primarily at businesses, even though many of the millions of users that downloaded BBM Messenger obviously were not representing businesses. Business channels can promote their existence through sponsored posts, invites, QR codes in ads, or BlackBerry's own index of featured channels. Businesses can employ BlackBerry analytics to measure user responses, and a BlackBerry Social Media Console service is available to integrate BBM Channels campaigns with the large social networks, such as Twitter or Facebook.
Ramon Llamas, research analyst at industry research firm IDC, described the new service as "interesting" but raising questions. He noted that many consumers are fans of businesses, so the service will be B2C as well as B2B, even though it is oriented toward businesses.
A key question about the new service, he said, is "how BlackBerry is going to position this," such as whether it will treated as an actual social service between individuals and businesses, or primarily a business-driven service that includes individuals in its audience. A related question is how it will differ from other social networks, such as Twitter, and whether there is sufficient added value so that users and businesses will participate in Channels in addition to Twitter, Facebook and other venues.
Finally, Llamas pointed out, there's the eternal question of "how will they make money?" The assumption, he said, "is that they'll charge companies" for at least some levels of the service.
iOS and Android Versions
BlackBerry said it is in discussion with smartphone makers in emerging markets to have the service pre-installed on those phones. The first release of BBM Channels is targeted at BlackBerry 10 and a few older BlackBerry phones, and versions for iOS and Android are expected soon. A Web version is already available for any user with a BlackBerry ID e-mail address.
BBM Channels is the latest in a series of steps by the company to turn itself around. Earlier this week, three senior executives left the company, including the chief financial officer. Several weeks ago, CEO Thorsten Heins was replaced by interim CEO John Chen.
Earlier this month, BlackBerry released a version of BBM for Apple's iPad and iPod. In October, a version of BBM was released for Android devices and the iPhone, which resulted in about 10 million downloads of the free app within 24 hours.