After the snafu that Blackberry went through when trying to release Blackberry Messenger (BBM) on Android and iOS a couple of weeks ago, the company corrected the mistake this week and re-released the apps with a little caveat: you have to stand in line and wait for an invite to be able to use the service. Putting aside this little hitch in the process, BBM is alive and doing relatively well on Android.
Whether you have never used the Blackberry platform before or you’ve just recently decided to leave it and move to Android, BBM is a valid communication method you can now use to interact securely with your friends, family and colleagues. Here’s everything you need to know about setting it up and using it on Android.
Setting It Up
The first time you launch BBM on your phone, you have to type your email address and wait for an invite email from Blackberry to be able to use the app. Currently, the waiting averages at about a day, so try to be patient. After receiving the invitation email, you click “I got the email” and the app will ask you to either login with your existing Blackberry credentials if you’ve previously used the service, or to create a new one if you haven’t.
Update: As of October 27th, Blackberry seems to have dropped the invite and waiting list process to join BBM. You should be able to set it up and go immediately after you download it.
Keep in mind that while BBM was part of the Blackberry Service (BIS) a long time ago and required a specific subscription with the operators, it is now open for everyone and works on any WiFi or 3G/4G connection.
Explaining the Interface
BBM for Android dismisses any Android design guidelines you have known in favor of Blackberry’s own BB10 UI, which might throw you off-guard at first. Having used the Blackberry Z10 with BB10 a few months ago, I found myself slightly “at home” with the app, although to be honest switching between it and the other apps on my LG G2 is still quite unsettling. The differences in app behavior and user experience between BBM and any Android app are quite jarring.
BB10 — and subsequently BBM — uses 3 different “panes” for its interface:
- The middle one, the one you see at all times is your main app. Below it is a black Action Bar with one to three buttons, along with a left and right pane shortcuts.
- The left pane is akin to Android’s sliding side-menu, with ways to hop into different parts of the app.
- The right pane is somewhat of a “more options” button, and it only appears when there are more things you can do.
Granted, the UI gets confusing at time, with the left pane being accessible via a swipe but not the right one. There’s also the problem of the back button replacing the left pane shortcut when you navigate inside the app, and the fact that swiping from the left to the right while in a conversation takes you out of it, which is horrible when you’re scrolling back through the emoticons. Not to mention how much wasted space the conversation view suffers from, or the teeny tiny emoticons, or the fact that opening any conversation automatically opens the keyboard, which you have to minimize if you want to easily read the messages you missed.
Changing the Settings that Matter
Before you start using BBM, I suggest you change these two settings, as they will make your experience slightly better with the app. The Settings are accessible from the right pane, and you can tinker with several of them, but here are the two important ones:
- Disable the BBM Connected Icon if you’re on a modern Android device with more than 1GB of RAM. This will turn off that annoying persistent notification icon, while still keeping BBM running in the background. On older devices, the lack of a notification presence might force the app to exit if the device requires more memory when you’re using other apps, so beware.
- Disable the Action Bar with the Keyboard. Blackberry’s Action Bar is already many pixels too tall, so having it stay on top of the keyboard will result in even more wasted screen estate, and practically none of the conversation being visible to you, even on a 1080p display like my LG G2.
Mastering BBM’s Features
If you have previously used a Blackberry device and BBM, you probably know your way around the app and the service’s featureset. But for those of you who are new on the service, here are a few explanations and tips to help you get started.
In the following paragraphs, I’ll compare BBM with WhatsApp mostly, because that’s currently one of the most popular cross-platform messaging services in the world, and the one I am most familiar with.
Invites and Pins
BBM is a private platform, unlike WhatsApp and Viber for example, which only require a phone number to start a conversation. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, and personally, I welcome the option of a more restricted system reserved for trusted people only.
BBM’s privacy stems from the fact that a PIN number is required to connect with other users. Only you can give away that PIN, and you will need to approve the other person’s invite before they can start speaking to you. The same applies to you inviting others too: you need to have their PIN and to wait for their approval.
Statuses and Display Pictures
One aspect of BBM that I only recently discovered and understood is the frequent change of profile pictures and statuses, as if those two features were being used like a private social network. The reason is twofold. First, BBM’s Updates section shows a list of all the status and profile picture changes — mini Facebook, anyone? And second, whenever you’re in any conversation, the header displays that person’s photo and status, so they are both visible at all times to you.
Contrast this with how WhatsApp never notifies you of any changes to your contacts, and the fact that statuses are only accessible by explicitly opening the contact’s page, and you can see why some people never bother to change their status after the app’s first setup.
This clearly isn’t the case with BBM. With statuses being front-and-center, people end up using them to convey emotions, update everyone on their whereabouts or latest news, or even send passive-aggressive statements to other contacts.
S/D/R and Absence of “Last Seen”
One of the first BBM-specific words I learned was “SDR”, which stands for Sent, Delivered, Received and describes the 3 states of messages that BBM tracks. Any message you type will have a small box before it, with these indicators:
- a grey checkmark means the message was Sent from your phone to the Blackberry servers
- a blue D means the message was Delivered to the other person’s phone
- a green R means the message was Read by the other person.
This tri-state indicator, especially the Read part, allows you to know if your message was actually read by the other person and they chose not to answer. By comparison, WhatsApp’s two checks only indicate that the message was delivered to the other phone, but there is no way of really knowing if it was read or not.
Another difference you might notice with WhatsApp is BBM’s lack of a “Last Seen” tracker. Basically, you can’t know if your contact is online or offline, or if they’re using BBM with other people, until you send them a message. And still, they could decide not to read it, while continuing to talk to other contacts, leaving you with a blue Delivered message but not more.
In my opinion, BBM’s system is a blessing when compared to WhatsApp’s. This is especially true when you’re on the receiving end of a “stalking”: you can easily evade the other person and they’d be none-the-wiser. However, if you’re the one doing the “stalking” to others, then you can’t really rely on BBM to track their messaging adventures.
Having seen many relationships disintegrate because of a case of “WhatsApp’s Last Seen vs what he/she said”, and many others reach the brink and barely survive, I consider BBM a simpler and less problematic solution.
BBM’s groups are quite elaborate compared to other messaging solutions. Instead of only offering a group chat, BBM bundles in a calendar, lists and pictures, to create a small messaging network for friends or colleagues or family members. Events can be shared with other group members, lists can be created to manage and assign tasks and due dates, and each shared picture keeps its own stream of comments to avoid spamming the main chat with them.
Here are a few other advantages and features of BBM:
- You can set a GIF as your profile picture — cool and annoying in equal amounts!
- You can send and receive PINGs, these basically make the receiving phone vibrate, to remind the other person to answer you — just as equally awesome and frustrating.
- You can request a High Quality version of an image: since BBM compresses photos before sending them, the other person always ends up with a mobile-friendly but very small image. Most times, these are enough, but if needed, a high quality version can be requested by the receiver by long pressing the thumbnail. The sender will then have to approve that, and the full image will be shared again.
- You can share any file type to a BBM conversation: if you have a file browser, any file extension can be shared to BBM — with a few limitations on size — and hence attached in a conversation.
Making the Choice: To BBM or Not?
BBM for Android is far from perfect. The app is clunky and the interface stands out like a sore thumb amongst Android apps while suffering from many bugs and setbacks.
However, all of those quirks can be accepted as consequences of a first release if BBM’s featureset — privacy, SDR, no Last Seen, HQ images, groups,… — provides a significant advantage over other messaging applications for you. If it doesn’t, then I suggest you use another service and take a look at BBM again after the app has received a few version upgrades and is working well on Android.