BlackBerry Messenger, the Research In Motion app that used to give its platform a unique edge, is about to gain a key new feature: voice.
RIM announced the BBM Voice feature on Wednesday, saying it will offer business customers "enriched collaboration" functionality. However, the free voice-calling tool will only work over Wi-Fi.
The feature is available in beta form now for devices running BlackBerry 6 OS or higher, and RIM says it plans to support devices on BlackBerry 5 OS "at a later date".
According to the company, this is only the start of an ongoing revamp for BBM.
"With today's announcement, we're expanding the capabilities of the service for deeper social engagement and even greater collaboration, beginning with voice functionality," RIM BBM chief TA McCann said in a statement.
"The new BBM Voice feature is for when you're travelling and you want to call home without worrying about phone charges."
BBM is a key feature of the BlackBerry platform and has been crucial to its uptake by consumers, particularly teenagers. However, these days it is only one of many free messaging tools available to smartphone users, with rivals including Apple's iMessage and the increasingly ubiquitous WhatsApp.
The new functionality takes RIM up against other rivals such as Skype, whose trajectory has been the opposite to that of BBM: it started out as a voice-centric platform, but is increasingly being steered by owner Microsoft into instant messaging territory.
BlackBerry users who get to try out BBM Voice will be able to switch back and forth between text chats and voice calls — a split-screen feature will support both activities at once. People will also be able to reject calls and quickly respond by text, if they are in a meeting.
Those wishing to try out BBM Voice can sign up via the BlackBerry Beta Zone.