Upcoming version of BBM will enable users to place free WiFi calls to other Messenger users. An industry analyst says business will appreciate

BlackBerry Messenger to add voice

BlackBerry owners have had the ability to use voice over WiFi instead of a cellular connection for several years.

But Research In Motion is about to add a twist – the ability to make voice calls through its BlackBerry Messenger text service.

RIM said Wednesday that the upcoming version 7 of BBM will include BBM Voice, allowing those with handsets running the most recent versions of the BlackBerry to make free voice calls over WiFi to people who also use BBM.

Business users could make good use of the capability to help their organizations save money by using BBM Voice instead of making calls over their cellular connection, said T.A. McCann, RIM’s vice-president of BBM and social communities.

Users can also jump back and forth between texting and voice, he said, which can help when conversations need clarity – for example, when two people are trying to find an agreeable date and time for a meeting. Rather than texting to each other ‘Is this good?’ a voice call might be faster.

In fact, the screen can be split allowing users to talk and text, or do anything else on the handset simultaneously – check email, send a photo or a document or go to other apps.

In practice, a phone icon appears at the top right corner of the BBM screen. If the icon is grey, it means the person in the caller’s contact list either isn’t online or isn’t near a WiFi access point. A green icon means the caller can either click on the icon or the handset’s phone button to activate a voice call.

BlackBerry users have other ways of making voice-over-IP calls, including through BlackBerry Enterprise Server with a Mobile Voice System plug-in and Skype mobile, which offers free Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls but only to Verizon subscribers in the U.S. BBM Voice offers free calls to Messenger users.

Roberta Fox, chairman of Fox Group, a telecommunications consultancy based in Mount Albert, Ont., said BBM Voice will be of interest to business users, for it gives an alternative to corporate communications systems.

 “Some of our existing enterprise clients have held off on making VoIP/unified communications decisions pending the results of the next-generation (BlackBerry 10) testing,” she added. BBM Voice will be part of BlackBerry 10. RIM will launch BB10 devices Jan. 30.

“For RIM to win they need to focus more on being a better phone,” technology analyst Rob Enderle said in an email. “This is consistent with that strategy. It isn’t about being first but about being better at something a RIM buyer wants more.”

BBM7 was released in beta on Wednesday for BlackBerry Operating System 6 and 7, with McCann looking for feedback from users on whether the voice element needs refinement. He hopes to have the final version released before the end of the year.

BBM7 for BlackBerry 5 OS has been promised.

BBM was once the star in the RIM firmament in North America, giving users the ability to text at no cost. However, as smart phone buyers shifted to Apple iPhone and Android handsets they found texting alternatives. In the enterprise, the bring-your-own-device movement freed BlackBerry users to consider other handsets.

On the other hand, Fox said that the reliability of calendaring, contacts and email synchronization of alternative platforms has led some organizations to hold on to their BlackBerrys.

McCann acknowledged that BBM was getting long in the tooth “because we haven’t done much in a while” with it.

So not only is voice being added, BBM7 also includes integration with BlackBerry ID, the identification users of RIM devices have to create. As a result their device profile, groups and contacts can be shifted to a new BlackBerry, including the upcoming BB10 handsets.

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