12/10/2012 02:01 EST | Updated 12/10/2012 02:03 EST

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) Free Voice Calls Feature Now Available From RIM

For once, Research In Motion is moving quickly on something.

The BlackBerry maker, criticized ad nauseum recently for the long delays to its new generation of phones, has released a new feature allowing users to make free voice calls, and just weeks after the company announced development plans for it.

RIM announced on its blog Monday the release of BBM 7, the latest version of its once-popular BlackBerry Messenger service, with a new option to make free voice calls, so long as the user is connected to a wi-fi network.

BBM 7 gives you the freedom to choose how you connect with your BBM contacts. It is designed so you can seamlessly switch from a BBM message to a BBM Voice call for free over Wi-Fi,” the company announced on its blog.

The move is seemingly designed to help RIM stay abreast of free voice apps on competing smartphones. Apple’s new phones feature Facetime, which allows you to make calls via the Internet. There are numerous apps for Android that allow voice calls via data as well.

It's not clear why the feature works only over Wi-Fi, and not on 3G or 4G networks,” writes Jared Newman at PCWorld. “Although wireless carriers in the United States once prevented VoIP apps from running on their networks — Skype on AT&T being a noteworthy example — that's no longer the case.”

But will BBM Voice be enough to rescue the flailing Research In Motion, which has seen its U.S. market share plummet to a paltry 1.6 per cent?

Maybe not in the U.S., but elsewhere it may prove to be an advantage, observers say.

BBM Voice probably won't lure many people back to BlackBerry in its current state,” PCWorld’s Newman writes, but in developing countries or countries with exorbitantly high telecom costs, it could make a difference, writes Kevin C. Tofel at GigaOM.

The new feature should be especially useful in areas with high wireless network concentration and in regions where voice calling minutes are still expensive,” he writes. “While handy in the U.S., for example, voice over Wi-Fi is likely to appeal in areas where the BlackBerry brand is still strong: Emerging markets that don’t yet have cheap voice minutes over cellular or are limited by cellular network coverage.”

Recent news reports are also pegging a date for the physical-keyboard version of the new BlackBerry 10 phone — roughly six weeks after the rollout of the new generation of phones on January 30, 2013.

RIM observers are eager to see the company maintain a QWERTY keyboard phone in its roster, as many BlackBerry users are partial to that feature. (The new generation of BlackBerry phones will largely feature touch-screen keyboards, like the iPhone and Android phones.)

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