BBM: Sending a Message

Just as there are too many ways to listen to music these days, I think there are too many ways to get in touch with people. Between email, texting, and phone calls, I’m already swamped. Or, at least, I feel swamped, even if I’m not busy answering a myriad of emails and messages. Social networks don’t make it any easier; actually, they add to the problem. I need another way to keep in touch with people about as badly as I need to be shot in the foot with a double-barrelled shotgun.

Enter BBM, or Blackberry Messenger. Another one of the ill-fated company’s “too little, too late” strategies that makes sure Blackberry is still firmly planted in 2007, BBM for iPhone is almost exactly what it says on the label. I went to school in Waterloo and have a number of great friends there, some of who were working at the company when it was still called RIM, so I mean no insult. In fact, I want the company to succeed — a little competition is always a good thing. But the question remains: is BBM relevant in today’s world? Is it better to show up late to a party than to never show up at all? Read on to see my thoughts.

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I spent a long time thinking about how to write this review. I’m the sort of person that happily deletes the Facebook app from his phone once in a while, just to keep the distraction from appearing. So another app for communicating feels like overkill. I felt like I had to come up with a reason to review the app. Coming from Waterloo, that wasn’t hard. I know a lot of people with Blackberries (I can still hear the rallying cries of the students: “Support local business!”). BBM is still popular here, despite many people’s aversion (including my own) to the product.

BBM comes with most of the features you'd expect in the client.

BBM comes with most of the features you’d expect in the client.

So I figured I’d have no problem finding friends with the app. Somehow, that ended up being untrue. To this day, despite my proximity to Waterloo, I have one contact on BBM. One of my friends with a Blackberry didn’t know his pin. He didn’t even know what it was until I explained. And when I asked how he could live in Waterloo and not know his BBM pin, he asked me how he would know his BBM pin when nobody had a Blackberry anymore. (Signs of the times, I’m sure.) After a couple weeks with BBM, my first thought hasn’t changed: using the BBM app probably isn’t for your benefit, but rather for the benefit of they few stragglers still using the Blackberry platform.

That being said, if you have some contacts with BBM, the app is handy. Think of it as iMessage for your less-fortunate friends: messages are marked as delivered and always include read receipts. Everything is sent over data and goes through Blackberry’s servers, which are so well known for their security that even Obama refuses to let go of his Blackberry.

BBM brings over some of the features you'll remember, like Ping, but it doesn't bring over calendar sharing.

BBM brings over some of the features you’ll remember, like Ping, but it doesn’t bring over calendar sharing.

There’s also some additional functionality that iMessage simply doesn’t include. But BBM’s more famous features, like calendar sharing, aren’t available in the iPhone app. My understanding of this feature is that it’s more integrated on a Blackberry phone, but it could have been useful for some of us nonetheless.

I’m also intrigued by group message controls. It’s easy to leave a conversation and stop getting notifications from the group (Apple should take note here). It’s easy to attach videos and photos. But it’s oddly self-contained in an app that isn’t going to win any graphic design awards.

The Design

I talk a lot about design in my reviews. It’s important to me, partially because I earn some of my living as a designer, but also because I think it matters. You’re going to spend a lot of time every day in your messaging app of choice, and I don’t think that BBM is well-designed. In this case, the design flaws go beyond aesthetics.

"It is an ugly... Ugly iPhone app."

“It is an ugly… Ugly iPhone app.”

It’s one thing to make an ugly app (and boy, is BBM ever ugly), but it’s another thing altogether to make an app that offers a poorly-designed experience. Consider the Contacts page, for example. There’s no easy button in it to add a friend or a pin number. In fact, the only way to add a friend to the app is to “invite” them — truly a strange word to use if your friend is already using the service. Nobody “invites” you to be a friend. You either are for you aren’t. People get invited to places they aren’t already at, or clubs they aren’t already members of. People get invited to parties. BBM isn’t a party, and if you’re already a “member” of the Blackberry club, there’s no need to “invite” you a second time. Finally, there’s no easy way to search through my Contacts to see if friends I have on my iPhone are already using the app. You need to know their unwieldy pin to add them.

Why are Updates available in the app? Shouldn't that only happen in the App Store? Questions like this abound.

Why are Updates available in the app? Shouldn’t that only happen in the App Store? Questions like this abound.

I know that this is a very little thing, and it shouldn’t matter, but the little things add up. And if Blackberry had taken the time to get this right, it might have meant they were willing to take the time to get the other things right. Some of these problems, like the impossibly difficult-to-memorize pins, are part of the BBM architecture and have been design flaws since day one. Some of them, like the interface’s impossibly outdated aesthetics, are signs of Blackberry’s inability to look forward or even understand current design trends.

Nothing about the app, even the setup and signup screens, is attractive.

Nothing about the app, even the setup and signup screens, is attractive.

The app is an odd mix of iOS 6-influenced shadows and buttons and iconography that doesn’t gel with the iOS 7 back button or keyboard. As a whole, it’s jarring. And when the big picture is hard to look at and the little things are poorly communicated (although adding a contact to the app is hardly a “little thing”), it’s not an experience I want to visit every day.

The Seams Are Showing

Some people say that it’s better late than never. In this case, I’m not sure that’s true. At this point, those of us who have been using iPhones since the beginning have been going without BBM for six years. We’ve either learned to live without it or didn’t need its advanced functionality to begin with. Compared to the ease of use that iMessage brings, BBM feels incredibly antiquated. It’s an unfortunate position for the one-time leader of mobile communications.

That being said, those of us who need BBM for work, or even to keep in our touch with our significant others, will already know we need it. In fact, at this point, those of us who need it probably already have the app or didn’t need it in the first place. The app’s experience is second-rate at best, and often worse than that. It saddens me to say this because, as a local, I want Blackberry to succeed. But if you’re on the fence about BBM and wondering if you should install it, here’s my simple advice: don’t bother.


BBM is poorly designed and uninspiring to use, and I can't help but feel I'm doing my Blackberry-wielding friends a favour every time I open it.