In the beginning, there was a Windows application (“app”) called ICQ. It meant “I seek you.” It was, in its day, a novel concept, allowing the user real-time instant message (IM) dialogue with a circle of other users of the app. You could send short text messages back and forth, without cluttering up your e-mail Inbox.
With governments in Canada then supporting the Canadian-developed Blackberry, out of Waterloo came the next generation of IM app, Blackberry Messenger, or BBM. It was a better IM app than ICQ, and more importantly, encrypted at both ends, and sent device-to-device. This meant that servers and routers didn’t retain your message. What appealed to users was that you could keep an exchange between them secure. Moreover, when users deleted the exchange, it went away permanently, just like shredding a piece of paper.
As an MPP, we used BBM extensively. To send short messages back and forth between the Legislature and the Constituency Office, or when, for example, my staff would ‘message’ me to let me know they had arrived for our meeting to review documents. As Chief Government Whip, BBM helped me track down our Members and ensure they were doing their House or Committee duty.
BBM made itself very, very handy in business and government. When Wi-Fi bandwidth grew sufficiently, you could have a user-to-user BBM voice chat over Wi-Fi. Like a message, a voice (or later, video) chat was encrypted at both ends, and even better, was digital in voice sound and video quality. I used it on business trips to keep in touch at home, and with the office. Our long distance charges went to zero. BBM didn’t require giving out your cell phone number. It used a PIN. This meant that the app could be carried, or ‘ported’ from one device to another when you upgraded your smart phone.
Other such competing IM apps appeared, notably Facebook’s WhatsApp, and Skype, later purchased by Microsoft. We’ll deal with them in a moment.
When the nature of Research in Motion’s business changed, versions of the BBM app were written for major hardware platforms (Android and Apple’s iOS). Once Blackberry hardware itself vanished, BBM was then a niche Apple and Android app. Once outsourced in this fashion, a lot of ‘code bloat’ appeared in BBM, which filled up with such eye candy as stickers and ads quickly. It wasn’t as tightly-focused as its users had remembered and loved it for.
BBM’s global user base of about 55 million has been in decline for a few years. In April, 2019, BBM announced that the app itself would cease working after May 31, 2019. Farewell BBM.
So what of the alternatives? With the impending end of the free version of BBM, users have four principal alternatives: two popular apps (WhatsApp and Skype), and two niche-market apps (Signal and BBMe). As well, there are other niche IM products that we’ll briefly examine.
If you are losing your BBM circle of friends, you are nearly certain to find them all in one or both of WhatsApp and Skype. For non-sensitive personal communications, you’re likely to use one or both of these.
When dependable security between users is an issue, you’ll need to leave the consumer marketplace. Two products built specifically for security offer users all the security they appear likely to ever need. If you are part of a government or a large corporation, and want to equip your people with a proven-secure IM app, you’ll want to test out and choose one of the following two:
Wikipedia lists dozens of other instant message apps, along with a side-by-side comparison of their features. As we bid adieu to the consumer version of BBM, we at least have a number of proven choices to move to in managing and organizing the short messages that would otherwise clog up e-mail systems.
The longer you can look back, the farther forward you can look ahead.