As we’ve ramped up our Digital Insights work over the last few months, we’ve had the opportunity to talk with people around Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East about the digital tools they use to stay in touch with each other and the world around them. These conversations have reminded us that we have to work hard to stay on top of the growing number of messaging apps on the market today, as what was popular six months ago might no longer be today. “App-a-Thon 2016” is our way of quickly immersing ourselves in different messaging apps to learn about their functionality, look, and feel. How does it work? The entire DAI ICT team signs up for a platform, and for one week, we use it to chat with each other, send images and video, and explore the quirks and features of the app.

So far, we’ve covered WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, kik, and LINE. Up to bat this week is BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

Key functionalities: Send text, audio photo messages; automatic, timed self-timed disappearance of content (a la Snapchat); real-time location sharing; file sharing; newsfeed as homepage (a la Facebook); channels open up a new content avenues for both users and marketers. Group features are robust; beyond chat, BBM groups can share and comment on photos, make joint to-do lists and assign tasks, and add events. Groups can include up to 50 people. BBM Shop has stickers, ad-free subscriptions, and more stickers.

Pros: BBM is now available as a standalone app for Android and iPhone. Excellent collaborative features for teams; channels have a lot of content. Probably the most “grown-up” of all the chat apps we’ve tested.

Cons: What? This still exists? Yes! Millions of people still use BBM, although the only country where it remains the preferred app for messaging is Indonesia. Adding contacts is a tedious process. As a result of years playing feature catch-up, BBM’s interface is disjointed and difficult to navigate. It’s also not clear how certain features are different from one another.


Adam: Quick test—one point for each time you answer yes: Are you reading this on a BlackBerry? Do you own a BlackBerry? Did you own a BlackBerry? If you got three points, I’m willing to bet you’re either one of those people who are still waiting for them to bring back Crystal Pepsi or you’re in Indonesia.

Why Indonesia? Because it’s the only country in the world where BBM is the predominant messaging app, according to SimilarWeb. Ironically, there was a time when BBM was the killer app that kept BlackBerrys flying off the shelves. The fact that it was only available on BlackBerry meant that if your friends had one, you had to have one too. Oh, how the times have changed. Today, BlackBerry’s marketshare stands below 1 percent and remains in a state of freefall (see 2015 comparison).

It’s safe to say that BBM is no longer the killer app that sells BlackBerrys; so much so that BlackBerry decided to port the app over to both Android and OSX in an attempt to claw back some relevance in a market that has moved on. This strategy hasn’t had much impact in most places, but Indonesia isn’t “most places.” I was there earlier this year to conduct Digital Insights research and observed first-hand what is characterized as one of the most connected societies on the planet. What surprised me was the fact that more than any other app, the young people we interviewed mentioned BBM as one of their favorite apps: 63 percent as opposed to the 47 percent who mentioned Facebook and the 21 percent who mentioned WhatsApp. See more of what we found here.

So what does all of this mean for international development practitioners? Whatever we might think of the interface, or features, young Indonesians are using it so we need to know how to use it, too. Channels are easy to create and can be used as communities of practice or homes for topical content (jobs, education, training) for young people; the fact that BBM allows paid ads means we can target the demographic group that interests us most with the content we post. Despite its popularity, WhatsApp doesn’t have this option. Then again, maybe that’s not a coincidence.

John: This seems like a great example of network effects, where the value of a product increases with the number of people using it. It also shows how difficult it is to leave a platform unless your entire network makes a move. As Farrell and Klemperer argue in Coordination and Lock-In: Competition with Switching Costs and Network Effects: “Competition between incompatible networks is initially unstable and sensitive to competitive offers and random events, it later ‘tips’ to monopoly, after which entry is hard, often even too hard given incompatibility.” This might explain—in part—the continued popularity of BBM in Indonesia. Devices, like BlackBerrys, do not enjoy the same protections of network effects because you can maintain your BBM contacts on any device—thus why barely anyone uses them anymore.

So what do we conclude?

While some might chuckle and compare BBM in Indonesia to David Hasselhoff in Germany, we don’t joke about local platform choices. As international development practitioners, we are much more effective when we work to understand local ecosystems (via Digital Insights) and then deploy our interventions within those ecosystems. This approach is codified in the 9 Principles for Digital Development (see numbers 1 & 2), an industry-wide effort to identify and standardize best practices in the use of new technologies in international development. There are some examples of BBM being used for social good; Canada developed a missing child service called Milk Carton 2.0, and data from BBM helped break open a massive corruption scandal in Brazil, but for DAI and the projects we work on, BBM is most useful as a messaging conduit to help us reach young Indonesians.

Interested in hearing more about other the other apps we tested in App-a-Thon 2016? Subscribe now to receive a weekly digest of our newest blogs sent directly to your inbox!