I Want BBM to be the Best iOS App

The space for cross-platform messaging applications is as crowded as ever with applications like BBM, WhatsApp, Kik,  Skype, WeChat, Google Hangouts, and many others battling for megabytes of space on everyone’s smartphones.  Among those named, BBM resonates with me more than the others.  Having been a BlackBerry user exclusively for the past five years, BBM has become an indispensable application to me.  While I was not the biggest user of BBM on legacy BlackBerry devices, it’s importance grew once I moved to BlackBerry 10.  Some of my closest relationships have formed through BBM and, because of that, I can never truly let go of the messaging platform.

Recently, I’ve opted to give iOS its first real try on an iPhone 6 Plus.  Thankfully, BBM is no longer tied to BlackBerry so I can maintain contact with my BBM-exclusive contacts.  However, a major part of the iOS experience is iMessage, Apple’s “answer” to BlackBerry’s BBM.  When people talk about cross-platform messaging applications, iMessage seems to make its name into the mix.  So I’d just like to share my thoughts on iMessage and BBM on both BlackBerry 10 and iOS.

BBM was not the hook which kept me tied to my BlackBerry for five years.  It was only over this past year, BBM has become the single-most used and important application on my BlackBerry.  To any BlackBerry user, this isn’t surprising.  For me, BBM had a few draws which separated it from the others.  For one, BBM’s use of PINs (8-digit hexadecimal identifiers unique to BlackBerry hardware and now each user) made sharing contact information easy without giving away personal data.  Even if you did acquire someone’s PIN, you would have to gain their approval to talk to them, and either could remove the other effortlessly. BBM also alerted you to when a messaged was delivered to and read by the recipient, a feature that, once experienced, becomes addicting.

The introduction of BBM Channels puts BBM squarely in contention with services like Facebook and Twitter.  BBM’s improved sharing functionality made it simple for both business and consumer users to share files, pictures, and even location.  BBM Voice and BBM Video made video conferencing and even casual video chat an enjoyable and experience and Screen Share, in particular, a very novel and useful utility.  The biggest change to BBM, though, came with the announcement of its availability on iOS and Android.  Now, BBM is available to users on BlackBerry, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and, through BlackBerry Blend, Windows and Mac users with BlackBerry devices running OS 10.3 and above. BBM has become more than a simple messaging app.

iMessage is Apple’s response to BBM and, as some see it, the company’s attempt to sway BlackBerry users tied to BBM onto iOS.  The idea behind iMessage is very simple; when communicating between two iOS devices, the text/SMS message would be sent over data instead of the cellular network.  In essence, it was a very watered down version of BBM in its inception.  It, though, made communicating with iOS and Mac devices easier and more reliable.

iMessage has evolved over time.  Users can now manually toggle whether they’d like to send “read receipts” (telling your recipient you’ve read their message).  Users of iMessage can also see when the person with which they’re speaking is typing a message.  Getting an iPhone, I was excited to have both iMessage and BBM on one phone.  After all, most of my close friends and family use iPhones and, despite my most diligent attempts, I just could not get them to install or continue using BBM.  The few who did install it uninstalled it or never responded to BBMs.  I found it puzzling that this most celebrated and long-awaited application faced such opposition.  I wanted to explore why this was for myself.

After a week of owning an iPhone, I have my answer.

BBM’s relative weakness on other platforms isn’t really BlackBerry’s fault at all.  It became easy for me to see why BlackBerry users could not figure why BBM wasn’t as popular on competing platforms as it is on BlackBerry 10, and this has everything to do with the strength of BlackBerry 10.  For those of you unfamiliar with BlackBerry 10, it’s signature feature is inclusion of the BlackBerry Hub.  The BlackBerry Hub provides  its users a single, unified interface for every communication which enters or exits the device, including phone calls, emails, BBMs, texts, WhatsApp messages, Facebook notifications, Twitter notifications, and much more.  The key functionality here is that BBMs and texts appear in the same inbox.  This makes BlackBerry 10 users very, very efficient in communicating with their friends or colleagues as they seamlessly transition from one to the other.  This kind of efficiency is almost unparalleled and BlackBerry deserves much applause for their implementation of the BlackBerry Hub.

Here is where iMessage and iOS differentiate themselves from BlackBerry 10.  iOS has one application for both text messages and iMessages.  The transition between both is equally as seamless, but in a different way. Yes, switching between an iMessage and a text message is as simple as it is on BlackBerry 10.  However, iMessage will automatically send your message as a text message if iMessage (rather, a data connection)  is unavailable.   Fundamentally, this makes me view iMessage and BBM as two distinct applications which don’t compete with one another.

So what about iMessage and BBM on iOS?

BBM on iOS is an application like any other.  When you receive a message, you can opt to receive push notifications for the message.  In this respect, BBM functions very similarly to BBM on BlackBerry. The “Ds” and “Rs” on BBM also functions identically to BlackBerry’s BBM.

This may be the first point of contention that may keep some from BBM.  As I mentioned earlier, iMessage has incorporated a similar mechanism into iMessage, but iMessage’s use of “delievered” and “read” signals are a bit different than BBM’s.  On BBM, when a message is delivered to me, it will stay marked as “delivered” until I physically interact with the message.  If I open the message, type into the text field to reply, or even press the “back” button, my message changes from “delivered”  to “read.”  Even using BlackBerry 10’s banner and actionable notifications will not mark the message as “read” until the reply has been sent.  iMessage is far less “forgiving.”  If a message is delivered to you and your screen is on and you are within the conversation thread, the message is marked as “read.”   Acting on iOS banner and actionable notifications will also mark the message as “read.” The use of read receipts is entirely optional, however, and its use has been met with controversy in my circles.   Most of my friends prefer I not use the feature, but after having used BBM for so long, it’s a difficult feature to relinquish.  But BBM’s obligatory use of this feature may be just a tad off-putting to users who aren’t so used to it.

BBM notifications on iOS are not the same as BBM notifications on BlackBerry.  On BlackBerry, you can act on BBM notifications from within any application.  On the BlackBerry 10 lock screen, tapping on a BBM will take you straight into the conversation into the BlackBerry Hub.  iOS 8 introduced similar features for iMessage, allowing actionable notifications throughout the entire OS and allowing replies straight from the lock screen.  BBM messages on iOS, however, do not enjoy the same privileges.  BBMs must be responded to from within the BBM app, fragmenting users between their SMS/iMessages and BBMs.  BBM Groups are a particular pain point.  On BlackBerry 10, users have the option to turn off group notifications in the BlackBerry Hub.  No such option exists on BBM for iOS, meaning that in order to mute groups, you must toggle off notifications for BBM entirely.  BBM Group notifications on iOS are also done strangely. Each entry into a group causes a notification to appear, meaning that an entire group conversation will appear within the Notifications area on iOS, despite all being part of one group.  Turning off push notifications, however, means that any kind of notification for BBM is turned off.  In essence, I can’t tell when I have new BBMs because turning off push notifications also turns off the notification icon atop the BBM icon.  I have to constantly check BBM for new messages.  The end result is that I respond to BBMs much less frequently than I used to on BlackBerry 10.

So, what do I want?

In essence, what I want is an all-encompassing BBM experience on iOS as I had on BlackBerry 10.  But there’s more to it.  When people compare BBM and iMessage, it’s not exactly a fair comparison.  BBM is not simply a rerouting of texts through data; it’s so much more than that.  BBM is its own social platform, complete with features that make it an attractive tool for business purposes and casual users.  Yes, iMessage is more than a redirecting of messages through data as well, but it is, in no way, as iconic or as feature-rich as BBM. The “Ds” and “Rs” used to be a huge draw, yet BBM has so much more now.  Yes, BBM will always be limited by the permissions it is allowed on non-BlackBerry platforms, but I want BBM to be the best app on any platform I use.  BBM is an extension of BlackBerry and to users of other platforms, it is the face of BlackBerry.  I want BBM to succeed because BBM succeeding everywhere is BlackBerry succeeding in one market I know it can dominate in.  If BBM is going to be available to users of other platforms, it should be the best experience possible.

I want a BBM that doesn’t intimidate iOS users with an unfamiliar UI, but one that’s inviting and comfortable.  I want a BBM optimized for the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.  I want a BBM that has more control over notifications (if that’s possible).

I believe BBM to be the single-best messaging client on earth and I want a BBM experience on iOS that is as indispensable and as enjoyable as BBM on BlackBerry 10.

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