When iOS 5.0 arrives on millions of devices this fall, business users loyal to Apple's mobile platform will get their first baked-in taste of what has proven to be one of RIM's most desired features, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). But will what they get leave them satisfied?
Like BBM, Apple's new iMessage feature, baked into its text message application, will allow users of the platform to share text messages, photos, videos and other information using a data connection, avoiding additional usage charges for SMS text messages or MMS media messages. And like BBM, it will offer better security, feedback on when a contact is messaging you, and full read receipts support--features that have made BBM a core communication tools for many businesses.
And also like BBM, if you want to connect so someone on another network, you are out of luck.
Such single-platform communications tools may have made sense when a single platform--the BlackBerry--dominated the discussion for business smartphones. But in the age of the consumerization of IT, where IT departments are largely allowing mobile devices to be a personal buying decision, the value proposition is much greater. The trend, which generally allows users to pick their own device and purchase it with an allotted budget, has permeated so far that even the U.S. government is eyeing a "bring your own" strategy.
The result is that BlackBerry isn't the only corporate smartphone in the game now, and devices powered by Android and iOS are stealing ground from RIM's venerable but arguably aging BlackBerry.
In an era where business users free to choose from a variety of platforms for their mobile devices based on their individual needs and wants, a single-platform stack for exchanging text messages amounts to the balkanization of business communications. BBM users get a great instant-messaging experience, as long as they're talking to other BlackBerry loyalists. It's too early to say if iMessage will deliver the kind of loyalty that BBM has enjoyed, but it too will suffer from its lack of connectivity outside its native platform.
There are ways to make this kind of third-party direct connection across platforms happen. WhatsApp, a 99-cent download, offers users BBM/iMessage-like functionality, including group chat, across iOS, Android and BlackBerry. But compared to functionality that is, or will be soon, baked directly into a device's operating environment, relatively few people know of such an app. And the number of people searching for the functionality is likely to decline, as a certain group will find the iOS-only nature of iMessage enough to meet their needs.
But to make this kind of on-device on-the-go messaging meet its lofty potential in a multi-platform era, cross-platform connections are desperately needed.
There have been persistent rumors that RIM is looking at bringing BBM to Android and iOS. The arrival of iMessage in iOS 5.0 would suggest that at least Apple's mobile platform will be closed to BBM as an app.
One can hope that, pressured on all sides by users, the major smartphone platform vendors will find a way to get their disparate messaging systems connected. Or, it is possible that a scrappy third-party upstart--be it WhatsApp, a more traditional cross platform IM app like Skype, or a whole new tool yet to see the light of day--will come up with enough killer features and mindshare to overcome the incumbency advantages of BBM and now iMessage.
But it would be a shame for one of the most promising business communication tools in a long time to fizzle out because BlackBerry and iPhone users can't easily collaborate, whether it's last-minute planning for a crucial meeting or just trying to figure out where to go for drinks after work.