The rise of BBM before BlackBerry died a slow death – exclusive book extract

■ In this exclusive first-part excerpt from the upcoming book Losing the Signal: the Untold Story behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, a skunkworks development team comes up with what could be RIM’s saving grace as it wilts in the smartphone battles of the mid-2000s.

While BlackBerry was losing the app race in North America seven years ago, BlackBerry Messenger was establishing itself as BlackBerry’s first killer app since wireless email, and the first globally successful app of the smartphone era. In late 2008, 4 million people used BBM. Two years later the number reached 28 million and by September 2011, it was 60 million.

BBM’s runaway success was almost as unimaginable as its unlikely birth. BBM was the brainchild of a trio of young Research In Motion employees who were looking for something to do after a rare slowdown in 2003 when the company had to lay off 10 per cent of its staff. The strategic alliances manager Chris Wormald and programmers Gary Klassen and Craig Dunk, along with two interns, explored how to adapt popular instant messaging services such as Yahoo Messenger for BlackBerry.

These services enabled users to have real-time text chats at their desktop computers over the internet, typed into a small box in the corner of their browsers. As they delved into instant messaging, the group realised those desk-bound chat services had a critical shortcoming – there was no way to know if the person at the other end had received the message, or was even there.

At the same time, the three men, who all had infant children at home, were contending with a different challenge: how to reach their wives during the day. Calling was disruptive, particularly if they were trying to put their babies to sleep.

What if there was a better way to communicate without making the phone ring? The three struck upon the idea of creating a “data call” – simulating a phone call through a series of instant messages between BlackBerrys. Creating the data equivalent of an interactive voice call would require the sender, to know his message was both delivered and received. The recipient would have to know that once she opened the message, the sender was informed it had been read. People would no longer send data messages into the void, unsure if they arrived or were read.

Building on an existing programme that enabled BlackBerry users to swap simple text messages known as PINs, the group created QuickMessenger, which was later renamed BBM. When a sender dispatched a BBM message to another BlackBerry user, a D for “delivered” would appear next to the message on the sender’s BlackBerry when it arrived. Once the recipient opened the message that D turned into an R, for received, notifying the sender the message had been opened.

“We were stunned at how well the D’s and R’s provided a real-time mobile-aware sense of presence,” Mr Klassen says.

Those two letters transformed instant messaging into intimate and interactive data conversations between BlackBerry users, particularly since devices were always on, connected and usually close by.

“It’s a phone conversation with the time-boundedness taken away,” says Mr Wormald. “The pain of phone calls is they’re forced to be synchronous – I talk, you listen, you talk, I listen. This was still linear, but it provided the cues necessary to know we were having a conversation. Once you read my message, you realised the important psychological effect – I knew you’d read it, and you knew that I knew that you’d read it.”

Mr Wormald realised the power of BBM, which was still being tested internally, when he gave his wife and mother BlackBerrys during a trip to Disney World with his three children in early 2005. As Mr Wormald sat on a ride, a man in the vehicle ahead pulled out his mobile and negotiated loudly with his wife about where they would meet next. “The magical moment was interrupted,” Mr Wormald says. A minute later, Mr Wormald felt his pocket buzz. He pulled out his BlackBerry. It was his mother: Meet me at the ice cream stand. He discreetly replied he’d be over soon, put the device away, and turned his attention back to the ride. After five days of BBM messaging in Florida, his mother wanted a BlackBerry. “She didn’t even own a mobile,” says Mr Wormald. “She was hooked. If you had asked me then, ‘Are you going to kill phone calls with this?’ I would have said yes.”

Back at RIM, not everyone was enamoured of the BBM trio spending so much time on a self-directed pursuit outside of their duties, known in industry parlance as a skunkworks project. Mr Klassen’s boss would shoo Mr Wormald away if he saw him in the building, scolding him for distracting Mr Klassen from his duties, and he gave Mr Klassen a bad performance review – for spending time creating BBM. “Getting something to happen often takes a certain amount of self-initiative,” says Mr Klassen. “There was a lot of work done during evenings and weekends.”

Finally, the BBM group was ready for the big test – winning the co-chief executive Mike Lazaridis’ approval. Mr Wormald’s boss had BBM secretly loaded onto the BlackBerrys used by the chief executive and his family. Once they came upon the app, they tried it and were hooked. Lazaridis’s assistant, Abbey Gilhula, was one of the first heavy BBM users. To see Mr Lazaridis, one had to go through Ms Gilhula, “and the way you got to Abby was on BBM”, says Mr Wormald. BBM was quickly adopted throughout RIM.

BBM was ready to take to market by 2005. At first the carriers did not want BBM on BlackBerrys – they were suspicious of any service that enabled users to communicate without paying them anything. For a while RIM hid the free BBM download in the BlackBerry help menu, but by 2006, as RIM prepared its big push into the consumer market, it convinced carriers to preload the app onto devices.

BBM became popular in North America and the United Kingdom when RIM cranked up consumer sales, but its reach was transformative as RIM expanded globally. Its popularity spread quickly – BBM messages used little data and arrived instantaneously, making the service a welcome alternative to costly voice calling and text messaging services, especially in poorer countries.

BBM was also private and discreet. Messages were encrypted and passed only through RIM’s relay system, not through servers controlled by corporations or governments. Each user was identified by the unique but anonymous PIN associated with his or her device, a randomly generated collection of eight alphanumeric characters. If users chose not to reveal their identity, it would be impossible to know who they were. It was an irresistible tool for teenagers in conservative countries to communicate with friends and romantic interests away from the prying eyes of parents.

From Losing the Signal: the Untold Story behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff.

Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter

Share This Post