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BlackBerry's hugely popular social-network-in-hardware BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) will be available on iPhone and Android for free from this summer.

BBM is one of the defining features of the BlackBerry, a brilliantly designed social network that has earned the firm a compulsive following. For BBM's "members", the messenger is the primary interface to the phone, enabling multi-party chats, and the ad hoc and spontaneous creation of groups.

This was possible 20 years ago on systems like Bix and Cix, but most web-based social networks can't do this. Twitter can't do it all, and Facebook can't do it well.

In addition, BlackBerry users knew they wouldn't get any price shocks: consumers acquiring a BlackBerry could use as much BBM traffic as they wanted, and forget about exceeding data or SMS bundles and getting a nasty shock. Nice.

But as BlackBerry lost mindshare and market share, BBM began to haemorrhage users to over-the-top (OTT) cross-platform messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat and Viber. WhatsApp now claims 200 million active users.

"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?" we asked last year. Now we know. BBM ports for iPhone and Android will arrive in the summer, with feature parity, BlackBerry promises. And they'll be free.

It's also making more of the social network aspects, belatedly. Specific BBM "channels" for shlebs and brands will be available, similar to Twitter's Cards feature.

The strategy is risky, since it makes the Canadian manufacturer's own hardware far less unique. It's a signal to BlackBerry's consumer base that they can, after all, go out and get an iPhone, and not lose messaging with friends.

BlackBerry must now compete on hardware and execute flawlessly. And the revenue model for BBM now evokes the Underpants Gnomes*. Maybe there isn't a revenue model there at all. But what choice did BlackBerry really have?

There's more at BlackBerry's blog, here. ®

*South Park season 2, episode 17: The "biz expert" underpants gnomes help Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny (who later meets his end under their underpants trolley) with a class project requiring business research. The gnomes business plan:

  1. Collect Underpants
  2. ?
  3. Profit?

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