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A young man in Lagos, Nigeria, uses a BlackBerry to take a picture of himself at a concert put on by famed Nigerian musician Femi Kuti.

The Globe and Mail/Iain Marlow

In an effort to maintain momentum in its developing world strongholds, Research In Motion Ltd. has added a voice feature to its popular BlackBerry Messenger service that can be used when the smartphones are connected to a WiFi network.

The proprietary messaging tool, known simply as BBM, is a strong selling point for RIM around the world. The service operates just like SMS texts, but run over a user's BlackBerry data plan and are not charged on a per-text basis – a key distinguishing factor in poorer countries where such fees are prohibitively expensive.

In countries such as South Africa, where RIM's smartphones remain incredibly popular, roughly 98 per cent of BlackBerry owners regularly use the messaging service, which can also be used to send photos and hold group chats with multiple people. It is a powerful tool to keep users in the fold as RIM loses market share globally to Apple Inc., Samsung Electronics and other smartphone giants but continues to do well in emerging markets such as Nigeria, Venezuela, Colombia and Indonesia.

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The new BBM Voice function, currently available in RIM's so-called Beta Zone for BlackBerry smartphones running newer versions of RIM's software (the BlackBerry 5 operating system, or higher, including the current BlackBerry 7 software), functions effectively like a phone call. But it will only work when users connect their smartphones to a localized WiFi network, and will not currently work via wireless operators' much broader based cellular networks.

"(W)ith today's announcement we're expanding the capabilities of the service for deeper social engagement and even greater collaboration, beginning with voice functionality," said T.A. McCann, a RIM vice-president in charge of BBM and social communities, in a release.

Of course, there are numerous other rival messaging services available to smartphone users. One popular choice, the globally popular WhatsApp service, already has some forms of voice and video functionality – allowing users to record voice clips and videos and send them to other users. WhatsApp, which operates on both WiFi and regular cellular networks, is also available across multiple platforms, allowing a BlackBerry user to send WhatsApp messages to others who use Apple Inc.'s iPhone or a phone running Google Inc.'s Android software, whereas BBM is only available on BlackBerrys. Apple also has a similar iMessage service for its iPhone.

But RIM's announcement does give some hint of the new functionality that could be coming to BBM over the next few months. BBM Voice, which may have been kept "WiFi only" in order not to alienate wireless carrier partners anxious about losing voice revenue, is likely just the first among other innovations coming ahead of the launch early next year of RIM's crucial BlackBerry 10 smartphones. It also answers a question many industry observers had been asking, given how much RIM's global executives have hyped and praised BBM over the past year, despite it basically being a cheap texting service: What exactly is RIM going to do to keep BBM popular in an era of increasingly advanced smartphone applications?

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