Last night we got wind that the cross platform mobile instant messaging leader, WhatsApp, has been rolling push to talk (PTT) into the application. Bla1ze already gave you a quick rundown on this news.
The comments have been pretty harsh, which isn’t surprising considering this is an enthusiast site, and you all know BBM is going cross platform soon. We all get that WhatsApp, while it is an app on our beloved platform, is also a competitor. Many of you took to the comments to blast WhatsApp for creating “a shortcut for voice notes”, an old feature.
If you’ve ever used a Walkie Talkie before, or a Nextel PTT phone, then you understand the power of simplicity. Push a button, hold the button, and talk. That’s it. There isn’t even a “send” button to worry about.
My first experience with a PTT app was Voxer. I found the tool to be so amazing that it prompted me to write about why I think BBM should introduce push to talk. Some of you argued that voice notes was good enough. Seriously, this is the problematic attitude that I sometimes see within BlackBerry itself. I often criticize them for accepting mediocrity. If we send the message that voice notes is an acceptable substitute to PTT, we train the company to keep settling for less than the best. That is no way to reclaim a throne.
If I think back to what made BBM so amazing, it was the simplicity of the service. Type. Hit send. Done. SMS is just as simple. Now imagine if BBM had instead been convoluted like this: 1) Select contact you want to BBM; 2) Select “create chat” option; 3) Type your message; 4) Select “done”; 5) Press “send”.
The future of BBM, as I see it, is a professional quality mobile communication toolbox
Of course you can see how absurd this would be. Yet it’s exactly how something like voice notes works today, inside of BBM. This, folks, is the past and not the future. The future of BBM, as I see it, is a professional quality mobile communication toolbox. Not a tool but a toolbox loaded with options. Text chat, files, push to talk, push to video, audio or video calls, screen sharing and more. Sometimes I’m going to want to send a text message. Other times I want to hold down a button and talk, or fire off a quick 6-second video. Much of the time the communication will be back and forth, but no synchronous like a constantly connected phone call. And sometimes I’ll want the equivalent of a phone call or video call. These options need to all exist within BBM. Nextel had over 20 million paying subscribers in the US. Push to talk is important.
Voxer is probably the best known PTT app around. They raised $30 million in funding last year, and they’ve done an amazing job with their app. They may not survive since WhatsApp has now baked this functionality into their service, and I expect BBM, iMessage and others will follow suit. I don’t think a stand alone PTT app makes any sense in a world of constantly improving mobile IM tools.
It’s too bad that BlackBerry couldn’t have beat WhatApp to the punch. But in retrospect, it wasn’t going to happen. There were stories about WhatsApp working on PTT back in May of this year. That’s a solid head start.
So BBM won’t be the first to roll out push to talk in a cross platform mobile IM application. But at least there can be no excuse now. BlackBerry won’t be able to worry about carriers getting pissed off about it, for example. It’s way easier to justify the existence of this feature when you’re catching up to someone else who already has it, rather than trying to explain to your carrier partners why you’re killing off a potential source of add-on revenue for them. But let’s face it - carriers are in the business of selling network access so people can use awesome apps. We tend not to think of carriers as app publishers.
If BBM is to become an enterprise-grade full service mobile IM platform that also happens to rock the world as the best cross-platform service for consumers, I think they need to pick up the pace.
I’d say BlackBerry should just go buy Voxer. But it’s probably too expensive to justify. Rumor has it that the pre-money valuation of the 35-person San Francisco company was $180 million when they raised a bunch of VC money. If BlackBerry was to offer a reasonable return to these VCs, we’re talking at least a quarter billion dollars. I’d rather see them build the walkie talkie capabilities in house (it shouldn’t be that hard) and spend some of their cash buying Sierra Wireless for reasons I already talked about.