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In A WhatsApp Addicted Africa Is BlackBerry’s BBM Too Little Too Late?

For someone who considers himself to be on the very cutting edge of most things digital in Africa I have to confess that I am a laggard when it comes to free mobile messaging services like WhatsApp. I have to be honest that the main reason I use WhatsApp these days is that my wife seems to have jumped on to this bandwagon with much zeal a few months ago and I therefore find myself using WhatsApp increasingly often on this basis. Other than that, you would normally find me using good old-fashioned SMS to get messages out to friends, family and business acquaintances on any given day. I’m old school like that and unapologetically so.

It goes without saying that the stumbling launch of BlackBerry’s BBM mobile messaging service globally on both iOS and Android devices this week is something that could be too little too late? I seem to recall a few years ago when BlackBerry was a much more popular smartphone platform in Kenya and other parts of Africa people literally bought them just for the BBM service. Indeed, It was in 2010 that my boss at the time had all senior managers get BlackBerry Curves so that he could communicate with us regularly and inexpensively using BBM. I never really understood before that what all the hullabaloo was about but once I was on BBM the idea of free messaging via the BlackBerry service was quite revolutionary – even for me. As in, you could be out of airtime but provided your BlackBerry service was active you had unlimited access to BBM every month.

Fast forward to 2013 and one has to say that it would seem that everyone young and old in Kenya as well as the rest of Africa using an internet enabled smartphone or feature phone seems to be on WhatsApp. I dread to imagine how much revenue African telcos have lost as users bypass SMS services altogether in droves to use WhatsApp instead as their main messaging alternative – after all its free except for Internet data that is needed to transport rich media messaging, to and fro.  It’s also easy to get up and running even for the least technology savvy users. These in effect are all ideal ingredients that make sense for any user in a price sensitive market like Africa where extracting greatest value for spend is the order of the day.

However, it does seem that it’s not all doom and gloom for BBM considering the latest reports that show it has shot to the number one mobile app download position on both Google Play and Apple’s App Store in many countries globally. Indeed, the total download numbers for non-BlackBerry devices are already over 10 million since the launch happened which is massive by any standard. If nothing else, I’m guessing its ex-BlackBerry users who are downloading BBM for nostalgic reasons as well as newbies who just want to give it a spin to see what all the fuss is about.

One thing is certain though, for BBM to gain market traction in Africa to anywhere near WhatsApp’s global 300+ million strong users, it will need a unique playbook that goes well beyond simply opening up a proprietary mobile messaging platform to more mobile ecosystems – BBM is after all a more or less “has-been” mobile messaging platform that needs to innovate to appeal broadly to consumers on many levels so as to have any chance of success. That being said, lets see how the next 6 months or so pan out for BBM VS WhatsApp in Africa as ultimately sustained user acquisition and retention will be the measure of success.

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