BlackBerry says giving away BBM for free will still make it money

ORLANDO, Fla. – BlackBerry (TSX:BB) says it will be able to make money off its BlackBerry Messenger service by opening it up to its rivals’ smartphones.

One of the Waterloo, Ont.-based company’s top developers said Wednesday that while BBM will be available to users on Apple’s iPhone and Android operating systems for free, there are other ways to generate revenue.

“By opening it up to other platforms we’re really listening to what our users have asked for,” said Andrew Bocking, executive vice-president of software product management at BlackBerry.

“They want to be able to talk and communicate with their friends, family and colleagues … regardless of what mobile device they use.”

Where the profits will come from, Bocking said, is BBM Channels, a new platform that will serve as a marketing launchpad for businesses and celebrities. It will work like a combination of Facebook Pages and Twitter and allow BBM users to opt in and start to follow popular brands.

“What we are talking about is enabling and facilitating those brands and businesses to enable BBM users to follow them … and those types of interactions would be paid-for interactions,” he said.

Bocking used was Starbucks as an example, suggesting the coffee chain could pitch special offers for coffee or other campaigns directly to interested customers.

Users could start following their favourite brands by scanning a BlackBerry “PIN” code on advertisements.

Other money-making plans are in the works, but too early to announce, he said.

The decision to launch a marketing side to BBM comes as advertisers look for new ways to grab eyeballs. Increasingly viewers record their TV shows on PVRs and skip the commercials and other traditional media has struggled to generate bigger advertising revenues.

Through direct marketing to phones, companies will be able to have a better idea who is seeing their offers and target their interested customers.

“Hyper-local mobile offers is really where we think the marketing and advertising business is going,” Bocking said.

But direct marketing has its setbacks as BBM could risk launching its new service and turning it into a glorified junk mail folder for people who like to sign up for special offers, but rarely use them.

BlackBerry will be careful to place a wall between a BBM user’s personal space and their other “brand communication” interests, Bocking said.

“We’re being very deliberate in how we allow those businesses and brands to interact with the BBM community,” he said.

BlackBerry doesn’t want BBM Channels to conflict with personal chats in BBM, which he said will “remain pure and uncluttered.”

BlackBerry plans to launch BBM on other mobile platforms sometime this summer, though it hasn’t submitted its program for approval to either the iTunes or Google Play app stores yet.

Opening up BBM to other major operating systems has received a mixed response. Some suggested the company should’ve made the decision years ago, while others have said it removes one of the most appealing exclusive features of BlackBerry devices.

Executives at BlackBerry were divided over the future of BBM for months before they chose to go ahead with the plan, fuelled by the growing number of competitors on the market, including WhatsApp and Waterloo, Ont.-based Kik Messenger, both which are available on BlackBerry and other phones.

At the company’s annual conference in Orlando the company showed off its wider selection of apps, after years of criticism that BlackBerry had been oblivious to their growing popularity on competitor’s devices.

The BlackBerry World store now offers more than 120,000 apps, up from 70,000 on Jan. 30, with both Skype and synthesizer maker Moog being two of the latest big-name additions.

But other popular apps like Netflix and Instagram are still missing from the store, a factor that Alec Saunders, head of developer relations, said isn’t as concerning as some would make it seem.

“The catalogue is pretty complete,” he said, while acknowledging that some “major names” are still missing.

“Every single category we’ve got good coverage. So even if there isn’t a specific application you might be looking for out of the gate, you can probably find a suitable substitute in our catalogue.”