It’s been three days since the cross platform BBM launch went live. While opinions vary, you can’t argue with metrics, and 10 million downloads in 24 hours is a very good start. But that’s all it is. A start. For BBM to make a solid comeback it needs grow the installed base and turn downloads (the curious) into active users (raving fans).

So how’s it going so far?

My experience with BBM on an Android device has been excellent. The app is working as well as I expected it to, and iPhone friends are reporting the same across the board. The app works well. Very well. I love the app. I want to make this crystal clear because there is much more to the story, and I want you to understand the frame I’m setting up first, before reading further. I am a huge BBM fan, and I would love to see the app become THE leading communication app for mobile.

I’ve been very active in pushing friends to download the app, and my contact list has grown significantly in the last few days. But a big part of that is me playfully replying to emails with “Access denied. Download BBM. My PIN is xxxxx”. Most of my new contacts are former BlackBerry users. And this is where we start to understand the good news / bad news aspects of the cross platform BBM rollout.

The good news: There are tens of millions of former BlackBerry users who remember how awesome the app was for them. They understand the concept of a PIN number, and they miss the “D” and “R” notifications. They’re downloading and using BBM.

The bad news:  Most of my friends who have never owned a BlackBerry have absolutely no clue about its value. They are either happy enough with WhatsApp or text messaging, and they see BBM as a “me too” player. That’s a problem BlackBerry needs to solve. I think they need powerful and simple videos to communicate the awesomeness that is BBM. This, in my mind, is a super high priority issue. There must be a powerful message behind BBM, and I’m not seeing it be delivered as strong as it can be... yet.

The BBM Handshake and Privacy

With BBM you don’t just add people to your contact list and start chatting. That opens the door to the IM equivalent of spam, which sucks. I want to move all of my social (and much of my business) communication to BBM, but I only want to get communication from people who I’ve agreed to chat with. That’s why BBM works by having one person send out an invite, and the other person accepting the invite. I call that the BBM Handshake. If you’re familiar with email marketing you might think of it as double opt-in, where you submit your email address to a company and then confirm you intended to do so by clicking a link they send you. With BBM it’s the same thing. You first give someone your email address or PIN, and you must  then accept the invite. That handshake keeps things clean. No garbage.

With BBM you don’t just add people to your contact list and start chatting

The unique PIN used by BBM is also a privacy mechanism. Your PIN, on its own and without the handshake, is pretty much useless. If someone gets my PIN they can send me an invite, but they can’t spam me and I can easily block them. This is what made BBM so popular with the teen and young adult audience years ago. People meet new people at a bar, they exchange PINs, and they never have to share personal information like an email address or mobile phone number. Much different that WhatsApp.

So that’s how I see BBM being differentiated, aside from the obvious D and R notifications. But even if the whole world understood this I still think there is a major problem BlackBerry needs to tackle. And that is ....

The invite process must improve, and that’s happening

I’ve already had one friend, a tech-savvy and self-employed dentist (the perfect definition of prosumer), download BBM only to get pissed off. Why pissed off?  The app won’t go through his existing contact list and tell him who’s already using BBM, so that he can send invites to those people. He uninstalled the app the next day, out of frustration, and took to Facebook to rant about the poor execution.

The simple truth of the matter is that BBM can’t become the dominant IM app without viral growth

His story is not unique, and that’s because he’s 100% right to complain. In fact, in my informal poll, this is the number one complaint from iOS and Android users of BBM, at least if you ignore the temporary lineup frustration. The simple truth of the matter is that BBM can’t become the dominant IM app without viral growth.

Think about what “viral” means. In the case of a biological virus, humans don’t have to go to special effort to spread highly infections diseases. If you are sick with one and breath on someone else, or cough, or share food, or shake hands, or whatever, the virus can spread. If it required special thought and effort to spread a virus, it wouldn’t be called a highly infections disease. It wouldn’t spread.

BBM, in its current cross-platform state, is not anywhere near as viral as it needs to be (but it's doing pretty already). It’s the equivalent of a virus that requires you to chase people down and work hard to infect them. Not very threatening, is it?  Of course not.

BBM needs to help you automatically extend your hand as part of the BBM handshake. It needs to go through your contact list and tell you who’s an existing user and ask you if you want to invite them to the service. It shouldn’t automatically invite everyone, it should be your choice. But the hard part, the identification of potential contacts, needs to be automated. Then it’s up to the other person to extend their hand and complete the BBM handshake. THAT gives the app viral potential.

The good news is BlackBerry is very well aware of this issue. I’ve been digging into this over the last three days and I’m certain they get it. I’m confident the next release of the app will fix this problem, arming BBM to attack its competitors in a much more significant way.

I just wish they’d realized this ahead of the launch.

Is it too late?

Opinions vary here. It took me until about March 2012 to decide that BlackBerry would have to be “stunningly stupid” not to go cross platform, and I outlined the reasons in this post. I’m very happy to see that BlackBerry came to the same conclusion. But there are others (people I think are smarter than me) who have been pushing for cross platform BBM much longer than I have. So it should not surprise you that some smart folks think this launch is 2-3 years late. If BlackBerry had done this sooner, it may not be facing such a huge gap between BBM and WhatsApp. People’s BBM contact lists would not have shrunk to the degree that they have.

It’s very tough to reverse negative momentum, which is what BBM must do in order to succeed. It’s even more tough to reverse the momentum when you have highly skilled competitors, such as Google, releasing amazing cross platform tools like Hangouts. And yes, I use the term “cross platform” loosely because there is no Hangout support for BB10. But unfortunately, as far as numbers go today, only Android and iOS matter for something to be considered cross platform.

I’m not worried about Skype. I don’t see it becoming a super strong mobile app. I’m not worried about Facetime or iMessage. Apple seems unlikely to support Android, but who knows. So I think the real fight is between WhatsApp, Google Hangouts and good old fashioned SMS, which doesn’t stand much of a chance in the long run.

So what’s your take, CrackBerry Nation?  is BBM up to the job? 

(Oh, and as a quick side note, there are plenty of people publicly speaking out about how “late” cross platform BBM is, yet they have no track record for saying so prior to BlackBerry announcing the cross platform plans.  Ignore the posers.)