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Licked RIM has a lifeline: a social network in a box

Don't forget the secret power of BBM

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Analysis RIM's fortunes have taken a catastrophic, Nokia-style nosedive in the past year - but it has a chance of pulling up. Admittedly, the odds are long, but this week the Canadian company began its fightback.

It's certainly right up against it. Fewer enterprise customers are dependent on RIM's email servers. The trend to 'bring your own' device to work, one that works well enough with Exchange or IMAP, is accelerating.

There is now a range of consumer deals that offer large bundles of texts, so the BlackBerry no longer has the singular attraction for teenagers, and other chatty prepay customers, of incurring no incremental charges for messaging. That was an overlooked factor in the BlackBerry's success. And qwerty keyboard devices just aren't very fashionable any more - glitzy touch tablets appear to offer so much more. And because soft keyboards are considered to be "good enough", that removes BlackBerry's unique selling point, that it made the best physical keyboards you could find on a phone

Some of this may change later this year - assuming RIM can finally ship some attractive devices with its QNX-based BlackBerry 10 OS. But the reason I think it'll return for one last bout is that RIM runs the only social network in the world that comes in hardware. And this social network has a flexibility than no web rival can match.

Don't shoot the BlackBerry Messenger

When I wrote, two years ago, that analysts, pundits and gadget fans overlooked this little thing called BBM at their peril, it was our most voted story ever. I thought then that BBM it was the best user interface ever put on a mobile communicator, something that made voice and messaging flow in a very natural way. Few agreed, but then very few had seen it in action - it was like trying to describe yodelling. It's probably fair to say BBM only really became noticed last August, and then for the wrong reasons, during the riots.

This doesn't say much for how well we mix, socially, or even geographically. Take any major northern city and find me somebody under 21 who doesn't use a BlackBerry. And almost all of these users keep it in their pockets because of BBM. At some point it became the conventional wisdom that the value of RIM was almost entirely in BBM.

RIM added a lot of developer options to the platform this week, including Qt, but none are as important as how well BBM works on the the new platform. BBM does things no web social network can do, but that online conferencing users were doing twenty years ago with systems such as the Cosy software on which Bix and Cix were based. On these systems you can create private ad hoc groups. Now trying doing that with Twitter or Facebook.

Twenty five years on from the zenith of BBS systems, we don't have anything with the same flexibility. The imperative of the Web 2.0 companies is to make everything on their social networks public. It's the only way they really know how to make money. The thought of users spending their time in private, closed groups horrifies them. But this isn't a problem for RIM.

These informal, easily created and easily dissolved groups actually mirror real life much more closely than Twitter or Facebook can.

RIM has also been extremely clever in how it has integrated music into its social network - again, geared towards promiscuous users whose tastes shift. You can grab anything from millions of songs, but freely cross-play 50 songs in your group. And BBM is proving far stickier than most web social networks. Once you're in, you want to stay in. No rival can quite offer anything like it.

There's no doubt RIM knows what an asset it has. But is it wise to be the sole provider of the BBM social network to the market - or to license it judiciously to, say, Sony - or even Apple itself, in cutdown form? ®

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