TORONTO Research In Motion aims to leverage the popularity of its BlackBerry Messenger with a new music service that allows users to share songs with other subscribers, a feature not available on Apple's ubiquitous iTunes.
It's a twist that the smartphone maker hopes will enable its BBM Music service to compete with iTunes and other established brands without taking them on head to head.
The company, which confirmed the launch on Thursday, has struggled to match the popularity of Apple's iPhone and iPad, as well as devices running Google's Android software. That's partly because rival platforms offer much more in the way of consumer-oriented music, games and other content.
For RIM, a stalwart of corporate communications, the new service is part of a crucial reinvention of the BlackBerry as an entertainment tool.
RIM hopes its music service appeals to the millions who chat via BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, though analysts are unsure it will have much impact in content-saturated markets such as the United States.
"They are a bit late - they're late on a lot of fronts," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, who rates low-cost Android handsets as a major threat to RIM's global growth.
Even so, he agrees that RIM "should do whatever they can to beef up BBM because it's one of the linchpins in their international strategy."
HOW BBM MUSIC WORKS
For a monthly subscription of around $4.99 (3.05 pounds), a BlackBerry user will be able to select up to 50 songs to add to their BBM Music profile from a catalogue of some 10 million tracks.
Users can share those songs with friends who have also subscribed, and in turn get access to their friends' songs. The more friends who sign up, the larger the subscriber's available music playlist.
Not surprisingly, it plays off the popularity of BBM - available for free but only on the BlackBerry - especially among young people who can't afford expensive texting.
Some 45 million people use BBM. It enables BlackBerry users with data plans to send text messages, pictures and other files without incurring charges from their network carrier. About 70 percent of them use it daily.
RIM says that, unlike iTunes and other streaming audio services, BBM Music will emphasise shared musical experience within existing and expanding social circles.
"This is not about tonnage. This is about creating a really optimal collection of music that you prize," Alistair Mitchell, RIM vice-president for BBM, said in an interview ahead of the launch.
Users will be able to switch out 25 of their profiled songs each month, create playlists composed of any tracks their friends have shared, and comment and rate their friends' musical tastes.
The Canadian smartphone maker has struck licensing deals with major labels including Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group, Sony Corp's Sony Music, Warner Music Group and EMI Group, as well as some independent labels.
The service, currently in limited beta, will become available in 18 countries in coming months, including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Indonesia, Australia, Turkey and Mexico.
Four people familiar with RIM's plans had earlier told Reuters that the BlackBerry maker was close to rolling out a music service.
RIM recently made it possible for third-party developers to incorporate BBM into their own apps.
RIM's share of the booming global smartphone market fell to 11.7 percent in the second quarter, from 18.7 percent a year earlier, according to tech research firm Gartner. In the same period, Apple and Android took a combined 62 percent chunk of the market, from just over 31 percent a year ago.
Apple has also announced plans for its own proprietary messaging system, iMessage, to enable instant communication between users of its iPhones, iPads and some iPods.
RIM's shares have lost more than half their value so far this year, but have risen from multi-year lows in recent weeks. They closed 3.9 percent higher at $28.57 on Nasdaq on Wednesday and at C$28.25 in Toronto.
(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; editing by Frank McGurty and Rob Wilson)