New BlackBerry Messenger will offer free voice calls over Wi-Fi, open beta starts today

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RIM may be focusing most of its energy on the upcoming launch of the BlackBerry 10 OS, but it's also getting ready to roll out a major new feature to BlackBerry Messenger users. BBM 7.0 will move away from just text with the addition of BBM Voice — free Wi-Fi calling between all BlackBerry Messenger users. If you're interested in trying it out, the open beta starts today. Much as BBM initially led the move towards platform-specific messaging as a way to save on text message costs, RIM's new integrated Wi-Fi calling solution could provide a simple way for users to save on voice minutes — so long as they have Wi-Fi available. It's a big addition to the BBM real-time chat app, a service that T.A. McCann, RIM's VP of BBM and Social Communities says "we pioneered and is now being copied by many."

From the looks of things, initiating a call through BBM Voice is quite simple and cleanly integrated into the service. Users will see an icon that represents the voice availability of their BBM contacts, and a simple press of the "dial" key (or the dial icon on a touchscreen-equipped BlackBerry) will request that the receiver join a voice call. Once the call is started, users can jump back into chat to send images or other content, will full multitasking available in other apps and full compatibility with speakerphone or Bluetooth headsets.

Voice calling has been cleanly integrated into BBM

Overall, it seems a valuable addition to BBM, especially for those that frequently communicate with people in other countries, which can be a costly venture with a mobile phone. Of course, there are a wide variety of VOIP apps that offer cheap or free calling, but having it integrated into the still-large BlackBerry user base gives RIM a bit of a differentiator and provides users with some useful functionality. That's especially true for users in developing markets, a user base that has become increasingly important to RIM as its market share has faltered here in the US and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, it appears there is little chance of this feature working over 3G or LTE networks any time soon — James Tantram, senior product manager at RIM, told us that there are "no plans currently for that capability," and told us that carriers viewed BBM as "driving a lot of purchase decisions, so making it more compelling makes people want to sign up for the BBM plan or data plan." It sounds like carriers are open to BBM Voice as long as it doesn't tread to closely on their turf. Unsurprisingly, the service doesn't work with anyone not already using BBM — McCann referred to BBM's "closed community" and said it wanted BBM Voice to be an "intimate experience" between BlackBerry users.

There are a few other tweaks to BBM 7.0, most notably the new merging of a user's BBM ID with their BlackBerry ID (which is typically used for buying apps). Now, a user's BBM contact list and groups will all be linked to a BlackBerry ID — so when users update their phones to BB10 or purchase a new device, they can easily restore their BBM to its pre-existing state. Those interested in trying out the beta will need a BlackBerry 6 or BlackBerry 7 device, and RIM said it was planning to support BlackBerry 5 devices down the line. RIM's also planning a "relatively short" beta period, with planned availability before the end of the year.

Oddly enough, RIM didn't want to comment about BBM 7.0's availability on BB10 — McCann told us that today's announcement was "focused on BBM 7.0 for BBOS devices," and went on to say that "we look forward to sharing more about the BB10 experience in the coming months." It's likely just RIM continuing to keep the cards close to its vest surrounding its new OS — we'd be pretty shocked if this headlining feature for BlackBerry wasn't ready to go when the new OS launches this January.

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