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The monetized future of BBM

BlackBerry BBM chief John Sims tells CNET about why there was "no choice" but to go cross platform, fixing BBM's sign-up process, and BBM's mobile banking potential.

Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
Seamus Byrne
5 min read
John Sims, Head of Enterprise and BBM, BlackBerry BlackBerry

BARCELONA, Spain -- If anything can keep the good ship BlackBerry sailing, it's BBM. John Sims is the man charged with taking this slice of the BlackBerry pie and make it do two things -- grow and make money. He's been in the role just two short months, but speaking with CNET on the last day of Mobile World Congress 2014, he has a lot of big plans on both accounts.

Full CNET coverage of the 2014 Mobile World Congress

"Clearly, in the longer term, we have to monetize that investment in BBM," said Sims. "One of the important dimensions for monetizing BBM is the enterprise. What we were hearing from enterprise customers was that they like the idea of the social chat medium, but they don't like the fact it is uncontrolled. Particularly from regulated industries. They wanted it to be secure and to be controlled so they can meet their compliance requirements."

"Of the 85 million users one of the things we observed is that 25 million of those users are actually in the enterprise space," said Sims. "Just organically, without a focus, more than a quarter of the users are using it in an enterprise setting."

So this week BlackBerry has announced the eBBM suite, a new suite of enterprise focused tools based around the messaging service, and its first product, BBM Protected.

"So BBM Protected will provide end-to-end secure chat on BlackBerry devices and on the BES server the log records will be written and be available for auditing and compliance work," said Sims.

The cross platform theory
"We felt, philosophically speaking, there was no choice but to take BBM cross platform," said Sims. "We chose that because the messaging paradigm is one of connectedness."

"If you roll the clock back to when SMS first came out, you could only send messages to other people who were on the same operator as you," he added. "Then the operators within countries said 'no, we need to be able to go across operator networks' and they did. And then they said 'you have to be able to send between countries'. It wasn't until those things went in place that SMS really took off. The messaging paradigm is one where you connect as many people and things together as possible."

With the move to cross platform, Sims sees that 60 percent of users are still on the BlackBerry platform and 40 percent are now using BBM on other platforms. Sims says BlackBerry is seeing good growth on all platforms, but knows what needs fixing to encourage even greater adoption.

"We feel that the invitation process and the registration process for a new user, while we've improved it recently, has room for improvement. If you've used it you know what I'm talking about," Sims candidly remarked. "It needs to be dramatically simplified, so one of our priorities in the near future -- instead of just adding more and more features -- is to make it work very easily. You'll see us focus on that over the coming months."

Sims suggests that when it comes to consumer focused features, they will have to achieve feature parity across all platforms. But when it comes to enterprise features there will be more options that are specific to the BlackBerry environment.

When asked whether a desktop BBM client could be in upcoming plans, Sims suggests that BlackBerry's priorities and key markets are very much focused on mobile.

Banking on BBM
While enterprise always has money for the right software, how can BlackBerry monetize BBM in the consumer market?

"You'll see us move towards things like digital goods," said Sims. "In some of the markets we're active in, particularly in Asia, that's a very attractive feature. A couple of the other messaging providers have done things like stickers, that would be an example of that."

A few fun micro-transaction tools are one thing, but the big thinking is in turning BBM into a transactional support system, particularly in developing nations.

"We have this secure transport, if you like, and a lot of people connected over that transport," said Sims. "So we are looking at the possibility that we might do mobile payments, person-to-person money movement, that kind of thing."

"We won't do that on our own, we'll do that in conjunction with partners. Because the movement of money and banking is regulated and so you need to be working in conjunction with partners who have the appropriate licenses in countries," he said.

Sims has had experience working on 'Banking the Unbanked' initiatives, such as in Bangladesh, in his previous role at SAP. He says that while only around 10 percent of the population there has a bank account, 60 percent have a mobile.

"If you look at some of the markets where BBM is very strong, some of those markets have these characteristics," said Sims. "So we think it's not just about mobile banking in a formal banking sense, it's what I call 'mobile money'. Being able to move money in and out of a stored value account people can use to transact money back and forth. People can transfer money to their relatives in some distant part of the country without having to drive 50 miles to get to somebody and they can use agents to get money in and out of this system. That kind of thing."

"So we'll be looking at participating in that ecosystem," said Sims. "In fact, here at the Congress we had some meetings with companies that could be possible partners."

"Our focus initially had been in some of the South East Asian countries, but, other than who you work with on the banking side, there's no limitation in the technology," he continued. "It's very portable."

"In India, as the government moves to the national ID system we can see opportunities to integrate that into machines in stores, identifying with fingerprints and so on to be able to use that as a security mechanism for money in and out of the system, as an example," he said. "We're thinking quite broadly about what we do there as part of our strategy around BBM and how we monetize it."

BBM: APIs and SDKs
Sims paints a picture of healthcare professionals working remotely, checking patient records and medical imaging on their mobile devices.

"All that needs to be secure. You can't be discussing patient information and showing patient records and having that be in the clear," said Sims. "It's going to have to be in a secure environment and we think we have a strong role to play there."

"We see ourselves exposing BBM as a set of SDKs or APIs to developers, so that if they want to build in secure chat into their applications they can consume it into their applications and have BBM be the chat mechanism within different apps. You'll see us do those kinds of things in partnership with people and also on our own."

Sims speaks with clarity and confidence in his vision for BBM and the many ways the platform can grow and earn money in the year ahead. He made it easy to forget for a few minutes that the fate of BlackBerry's entire future is tied closely these plans.