If BlackBerry Had Opened BBM to All, It Wouldn’t be a Patent Troll
BlackBerry made merry with the BBM, but its biggest mistake is costing them even today.
BlackBerry made merry with the BBM, but its biggest mistake is costing them even today.(Photo: iStock)

If BlackBerry Had Opened BBM to All, It Wouldn’t be a Patent Troll

So, BlackBerry has decided to become a patent troll and is suing Facebook, claiming infringement on patents it holds on message encryption, battery and message notifications, and combining messaging with gaming.

Essentially, it’s all about an app named BBM – or BlackBerry Messenger – that most kids in college wouldn't even know of today.

A company that spectacularly blew its chances in the smartphone space despite being the early leader with massive market share is now taking aim at competitors in courts using patents – competitors who have left BlackBerry far behind, not just because they were nimbler, but simply because the company was arrogant and refused to innovate.

Ten years ago, that arrogance came forth in mocking the iPhone and its full screen. Today, the iPhone has propelled Apple to become the most valuable company in the world, while BlackBerry is a sliver of a shadow of its former self.

Take mobile instant messaging (IM) which the current fracas with Facebook is about. BlackBerry was the pioneer of mobile instant messaging – BlackBerry ran one of the largest telecom networks in the world to enable BlackBerry services and BBM. And it did so securely, since BBM was encrypted.

BlackBerry DTEK 60 is their Android phone.
BlackBerry DTEK 60 is their Android phone.
(Photo: The Quint/@2shar)

For corporates and security-aware customers like defence forces in the west (the Pentagon, for instance), BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) provided an extra layer of security since they had the encryption keys themselves, ensuring that no one could snoop on BES to BES.

Because BBM had dedicated infrastructure, it worked even while mobile networks were choked during emergency situations, thus making it a preferred choice for emergency services too. And with data compression, BBM users got information in packets and did not have to wait for a huge file to be completely downloaded to view it.

And then there was the little D and R.

‘D’ signified Delivered and ‘R’ signified Read. During this time, WhatsApp was a fledgling – it was buggy, slow and insecure (no encrypted option was available) and it didn’t have the cool D and R feature which meant that even for the few who used WhatsApp, there was no real way to know whether a message was read — it was pretty much like SMS, only far more unreliable.

A woman walks past a Blackberry advertisement billboard in Mumbai. 
A woman walks past a Blackberry advertisement billboard in Mumbai. 
(Photo: Reuters)

Nokia, which used to compete with BlackBerry in the smartphone space (smartphones were primarily seen as expensive devices for business use) used to push WhatsApp in its advertising for its E series devices because it didn’t have the mighty BBM messenger on its phones.

BlackBerry and BBM were so cool that in 2010 BlackBerry India made a famous BlackBerry Boys ad spot with Vodafone – youngsters and college kids wanted to be on BBM and so they got BlackBerry devices. The BlackBerry Boys ad celebrated that.

Writing Was on the Wall

Unfortunately, BlackBerry was so caught up in its success that it never saw change coming.

Cracks started appearing on the BlackBerry citadel around 2011 as the iPhone became a stupendous success and made BlackBerry executives, who had mocked the full-screen iPhone, eat their words and Android caught on in the developing world and started gobbling up market share in countries like India.

And the only common cross-platform mobile instant messaging app out there with scale and some amount of reliability by then? WhatsApp.

WhatsApp tried to replicate BBM's D and R through ticks and double ticks, but in the early days the app was still buggy and even if you got two ticks there were times the recipient hadn't read it because the single tick actually meant message delivered to server and the second tick mark meant the message was delivered to device.

The BlackBerry KEYone  comes with android Nougat 7.1.1
The BlackBerry KEYone comes with android Nougat 7.1.1
(Photo: The Quint)

Besides, BBM was PIN-based and not dependent on phone numbers. So, unless you were already a BBM contact, no one could contact you on BBM, add you to some group or view your display picture – all of which continue to make WhatsApp a privacy nightmare till date.

But despite the iPhone gobbling up the premium market and Android taking the mass market and WhatsApp being the only real cross-platform mobile instant messenger, BlackBerry’s myopic management failed to see the writing on the wall.

They kept BBM walled off and accessible only to BlackBerry users. If BlackBerry had opened BBM to Android and iOS around 2010, WhatsApp may not have existed today.

BlackBerry's secret weapon was supposed to be BlackBerry 10 – a whole new OS, which was meant to take the wrecking ball to iPhone and Android. BlackBerry 10 was launched in January 2013 with the Z10 and Q10 smartphones. It was slick, fast and quite amazing. I still believe BlackBerry 10 was the best mobile OS the world has seen.

However, it has one glaring problem – in a world where apps are necessary for everything from photography to shopping to cab riding, the BlackBerry 10 App Store (BlackBerry World) cupboard was bare. You could port apps like Instagram to BlackBerry 10 using a complicated process, but other than geeks, no one would be bothered and the ported applications were buggy.

BlackBerry finally opened up BBM to Android and iOS in September 2013. By then WhatsApp was already a behemoth – in June 2013, WhatsApp claimed over 250 million monthly active users while BBM had a mere 60 million monthly active users. But despite this, BBM still was the technically superior app and had features like video calling going for it. But just like BlackBerry 10, BlackBerry ended up releasing BBM on Android and iOS with some glaring problems and bugs. Some features like video calling weren't available and the initial use experience was buggy.

And hence, despite diehard loyalists like me who loved BBM for privacy but had to move from BlackBerry 10 to iOS and Android for apps (after all, who can live without having the Uber and Ola app on your smartphone in a major city?), BBM kept sinking, except for some markets like Indonesia where it still is a force to be reckoned with.

(Photo: iStock)

It was fitting then that in June 2016, BlackBerry sold the brand, IP and technology licensing rights of BBM to an Indonesian media and technology company, Emtek, for a value of $207.5 million over six years

Yes, that's right – BlackBerry doesn't even own BBM completely any more. By then, BBM was left with only 100 million users globally and WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014) had a billion users. But in Indonesia, BBM was even then the most downloaded app in the country.

In 2013, I met Gary Klassen, the man who invented BBM within BlackBerry. When I asked him if he had any regrets about the way BlackBerry had dealt with BBM, he said he wished BlackBerry had opened BBM to Android and iOS earlier.

BlackBerry may have a legal point in going after Facebook (and perhaps Snapchat would agree), and the actual merit of the case is something the courts will decide on. But the point is, if only BlackBerry had opened BBM to the wider ecosystem and done a better job of marketing it, BBM would be today worth far, far more than BlackBerry itself.

BlackBerry's market cap is currently around $6.7 billion, while WhatsApp even in 2014 was worth $19 billion to Facebook.

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