TORONTO - Research in Motion (TSX:RIM) is hoping its millions of BlackBerry Messenger-obsessed users will get just as hooked on its new service, BBM Music, and pay $5 a month to swap song recommendations and share music with friends.
The program, announced Thursday, allows BlackBerry users to select 50 songs from a catalogue of millions of tracks for their own personal playlist. Those songs can also be listened to offline without an Internet connection.
But the key to the program is not only in listening to the songs on your own playlist but sharing them with other BBM users — which RIM says now total more than 45 million. Users also have access to the songs selected by their friends on BBM Music, making their library of available tracks potentially much larger.
"By threading the culture, the immediacy and the trusted contacts that (make up) BBM with music we thought we could create a really compelling, unique experience," said Alistair Mitchell, RIM's vice president of BBM platform and integrated services.
"Through BBM Music I can find out in real time what music matters to my friends ... I'm seeing music bubble up that I wouldn't even had thought about, or it's reminding me about music from my college days."
At a time when RIM is struggling to produce phones that can compete with the likes of Apple's iPhones and Google Android devices, well-designed software products that make the BlackBerry cooler to use are exactly what the company needs, says Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor of media and mass communications at Queen's University.
"They never have cool stuff, they don't need 20 new phones, they need excellent services and software — desperately," says Matrix.
And it's smart for the company to be leveraging BBM — its biggest strength with young people — any way it can, she adds.
"My students are ... 18 to 22 and BBM is an extension of their self, it's always on, it's like the backbone of college culture. Everybody's got BBM," Matrix says.
"I think the most brilliant thing about it is they called it BBM Music, because BBM is just a magic-spell word for that generation, they're so into BBM, that's how they communicate."
Some tech blogs came out swinging after RIM made its announcement, making unfavourable comparisons with other music services like Rdio and Spotify, which charge $10 a month but have no song limits.
"RIM Launches Inexplicable BBM Music App," wrote TechCrunch, while Gizmodo headlined its story: "BlackBerry's BBM Music Is The Dumbest Music Service I've Ever Heard Of."
But Mitchell said RIM was trying to create a different service and the limited number of songs allowed per profile was strategic.
"The 50 song profile is a way to describe oneself," he said.
"It creates this distillation of what music really matters to that person, which is a benefit to the collective. Your friendship circle gets the benefit of everyone having put in their best effort to create their distilled favourite collection of music."
Matrix says RIM was wise to build in the song limit, which serves as an incentive to recruit others to the service.
"These things don't work unless your friends are there, it's not fun unless there's a critical mass," she says, adding that some users will want to use BBM Music to project their own musical tastes and knowledge as an extension of their personality and identity.
"It does seem like it would serve a music maven (who thrives on making recommendations to friends). If I can create my playlist there's a certain cachet in doing that and sharing it."
The biggest challenge RIM faces, she says, is that young people generally have a stubborn aversion to paying for digital music.
"Honestly, (my sense is) there's no way they're going to pay for music, unless things have changed radically in the last six to eight months, it just doesn't make sense to pay for music in that demographic," she says.
A closed trial of the service begins in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Thursday, leading up to a wide release in 18 countries overall later this year.