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BBM vs WhatsApp: And the winner is...?

It's the battle of the messengers. A look at the features of both the titans

Ariha Setalvad  |  Mumbai 

The WhatsApp application has made hay playing the ‘cross-platform BBM’ while BlackBerry kept its popular messenger service, BBM, bundled with its devices. But, with the latter finally making the messenger available on Apple’s iOS and Android-backed devices, many might be wondering if WhatsApp will be able to hold on to its massive headstart. After all, more than 10 million downloads within 24 hours of BBM being launched for non-BlackBerry handsets cannot be ignored.

When Business Standard pitted the two applications against each other on various features, it appeared a close battle for supremacy was inevitable.

WhatsApp creates an account on the basis of your phone number, while BBM uses alpha-numeric keys called pins. The former’s process is easy, as you don’t have to remember passwords while shifting to a new device. It just sends a verification SMS to your number and the app scans for it.

For friends whose numbers you already have in your address book, this works out very well — WhatsApp automatically tells them you are on WhatsApp too. On the downside, this means you have to give out your phone number to add a new friend. Also, you must pop your SIM card into a new device when switching to set up WhatsApp. This can be a hassle if you are using a secondary phone or temporary SIM.

BBM’s set-up doesn’t require you to input your number. Unlike WhatsApp, you have to start building up your BBM contact list from scratch. But while switching devices, you can back up your contact list to the cloud and then remotely restore it on a new device.

Contact management
It’s important to remember that adding a WhatsApp contact doesn’t just mean you need someone’s phone number; you also need them in your device’s address book. This means, you don’t get to choose who you want on your WhatsApp contact list — a reason for many users to stay away from this service.

However, WhatsApp has a full contact-blocking mechanism in place, like BBM. Of course, since the contact you decide to block has your phone number, a quick follow up on the other side over SMS or even voice calling is likely. But WhatsApp does have a way to mark contacts as favourites for easy access — a feature missing from BBM.

So far as adding contacts is concerned, BBM’s cryptic pins could be a hassle, but that’s not the only way to do it. There also are barcode scanning and straight email invites that are quite easy.

Neither service has a tag system to organise contacts into, say, work and personal groups, though both offer group chats.

Text chat
The core of both experiences is text messaging. Both provide typing and delivery receipts, though in slightly different ways. On WhatsApp, a tick mark next to your message means it has been delivered to the server while a second one means the sender has received it — that doesn’t necessarily mean the receiver has read it. BBM, on the other hand, ticks off when your message is sent to the server, a ‘D’ mark when it is delivered to the receiver and an ‘R’ when the receiver has seen it.

Though WhatsApp lets you know at the top when the user was last active, strictly speaking, only BBM has read receipts.

BBM also has a few extras tied in. Conversations can be copy pasted elsewhere and emailed. Depending on the kind of conversations you have, these could be features you might prefer to skip. But for many, it will come in handy.

File sharing
WhatsApp only shares pictures and video files, while BBM allows users to swap any file type. Both platforms can send contacts and location, too. BBM also allows groups of people to share images, but no other file type. On the upside, group pictures on BBM have robust caption, comment, and upvoting mechanisms.

Group chat
Both BBM and WhatsApp support group chats, but BBM’s offering is decidedly richer. Both allow sharing of images to a group, but, curiously, BBM groups don’t support video, location, or contact sharing. On the other hand, WhatsApp maintains file-sharing parity with one-on-one chat. But BBM makes up for the discrepancy with shared to-do lists and events, plus a much more fleshed-out user interface for accessing all that content. Groups on BBM can also host multiple separate conversations which is great for larger groups.

The real clincher for group chat on BBM are the channels. These allow users to anonymously subscribe to channels that broadcast all kinds of content. Direct chat can be enabled between channel owners and followers, too, which is good for promoting engagement and handling, such as giveaways or “office hours”.

Channel owners get metrics on traffic and a web interface for publishing updates — perfect for brand owners looking to reach new demographics. Though channels won’t be available on Android or iOS versions at launch, these should be arriving shortly after.

Voice and video chat
Both WhatsApp and BBM support the sending of audio snippets recorded directly from the device. WhatsApp certainly wins in its implementation of voice notes, but that’s trumped quite quickly by BBM Voice.

The quality of real-time VoIP on BBM is fantastic. Also, despite having a very snappy-looking push-to-talk implementation, voice notes sent cross-platform on WhatsApp were a little on the laggy side.

Though you can share video files back and forth on WhatsApp, there’s no live video chat. Again, BBM wins with stable video chat, and the newer addition of screen sharing.

Blackberry maintains that both these services will be offered free to Android and iOS users.

Emoticons and personalisation
BBM comes with 90 core emoticons. WhatsApp blows that out of the water with 189; and, many users might attest, a conversation that isn’t punctuated by numerous facial expressions is sorely lacking.

BBM also enjoys a few other points of personalisation that you won’t find on WhatsApp. For one, there’s the classic PING action — to give your friends a little nudge when they’re being slow to reply. WhatsApp, however, lets you swap in custom wallpapers for your chat windows which is a nice touch.

Status and profile
Both BBM and WhatsApp have profile structures that support custom status messages and profile pictures. The former scores for a busy icon option, and optional updates for what music you’re listening to in the native music player. BBM profiles can also be linked to apps, providing practical functions like updating your status with your latest Foursquare check-in. WhatsApp has an impressive selection of preset status messages, but that’s about it.

Bottom line
Both messengers have their own set of scoring features and a few flaws that these make up for. Assuming the iOS and Android versions keep feature parity, it might be safe to say BBM could edge past WhatsApp.

WhatsApp has had the time to polish its user interface, build a strong installed base and start implementing a mostly-complete feature set, but service is still sketchy and lacking in forward-thinking features.

The only real challenge BBM might face is being consistent with its service to convince the users already comfortable with other platforms to give BBM a shot.

First Published: Mon, October 28 2013. 10:05 IST