Abhinav Purohit, senior research analyst, telecoms IDC Middle East, Turkey & Africa, assesses BlackBerry's plan to open up its BBM service to Android and iOS mobile.

BBM is an Internet-based instant messaging, voice, and video-calling service available on BlackBerry mobile devices that allows users to communicate for free. With this service, users pay no charges for exchanging texts or making voice or video calls as long as they are utilising a mobile Internet or WiFi connection. Until now, the service has been available exclusively on BlackBerry devices, serving as a key differentiating factorthat has spurred sales.

According to BlackBerry, the service currently has over 61 million active users, and over 70% of these use the service every day. Indeed, the BBM platform transmits over 10 billion messages daily.

However, the appeal of BBM has started to diminish of late, following the advent of similar free messaging services from over-the-top (OTT) players such as WhatsApp and Viber.

These third-party apps work across platforms, and users no longer need to be tied to BlackBerry devices for free messaging services. Further, the overall sales of BlackBerry devices have recently slumped, as customers began to perceive them as outdated in comparison to devices running on the increasingly popular Android and iOS systems.

Even within the Middle East, which has traditionally been a stronghold for BlackBerry, the company has seen its market share decline. For instance, in the UAE, BlackBerry's market share in terms of new shipments dropped from 70.3% in Q1 2011 to 42.2% by Q4 2012, while the share of Android devices grew from 23.4% to 51.9% over the same period. (Source: IDC Mobile Phone Tracker for the UAE, 2011–2012).

To arrest this decline in market positioning, the company has undertaken several initiatives, such as the January 2013 launch of a new operating system, BB10, along with new smartphones, the Q10 and Z10, that are based on this platform. Further, in May 2013, the company announced that it is opening up the BBM service to iOS and Android as well, subject to approval from Google and Apple, respectively.

Although BlackBerry has not yet confirmed the final dates, BBM is expected to be launched on both the operating systems within the next few months and will be available as a free downloadable application.

Initially, the service will only support instant text messaging, with more advanced BBM features such as voice calls, screen sharing, and video calls to be added a few months later. With all these features, the cross platform BBM service will present strong competition for services like Google Talk and Apple's iMessage and FaceTime services.

Other strategic moves that BlackBerry is undertaking to enhance its market position in the region include the opening of 'The BlackBerry Retail Concept Store', the company's first-ever retail store in the Middle East.

Inaugurated in June 2013, the store focuses on giving visitors a personalized BlackBerry-branded experience and represents a reinforcement of BlackBerry's strategic focus on the Middle East region.

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