BBM: A digital ecosystem inside Indonesia
In the modern world, everything is instant. Entertainment continues to find ways to be in the palm of our hands and at our very fingertips - it has to be, we demand it.
As the world continues to become more and more digital, consumers demand more and more of their needs to be readily available and hosted in one simple location. Utilities, e-commerce, social media, television, accessible at the push of one button.
Instant messaging used to be exactly what it implies, a form of contact that was fast and easy to use. But now, even instant messaging has had to transform, as “chat” is very much the killer application, enabling instant messaging companies to expand into becoming eco-systems, bringing together chat, social, content and commerce.
Most will have heard of the likes of WeChat in China, LINE in Japan, Kakao Talk in Korea as instant messaging companies that have made this transformation already, but BBM in Indonesia is also one that comes into the fray. Born out of BlackBerry, best known to the general public as the former developer of the BlackBerry brand of smartphones and tablets, has transitioned itself to an enterprise software and services company. As an instant messaging service, BBM was very much a consumer dominated product, but as BlackBerry shifted its focus to enterprise, it no longer fit the parent company’s direction and BlackBerry looked for options to maximise its value going forward.
In 2016, Creative Media Works, a division of PT Elang Mahkota Teknologi Tbk (Emtek) – one of Indonesia’s largest media, content and social networking business - announced a long-term strategic alliance to accelerate consumer BBM’s research and development in offering new and exciting features, services and content to the global consumer market.
“BBM is actually 12 years old this year,” says Matthew Talbot, CEO of Creative Media Works (CMW), the company which has the license to operate, develop and run BBM Consumer globally. “For a long time, BBM was the default global messaging service, and everyone remembers having a BlackBerry email account and using BBM. Obviously though the market has changed, and with that, we BBM has also had to change to survive.”
This new direction has seen BBM evolve from a pure messaging service connecting people to a social ecosystem, unifying chat, social, commerce, content and services such as news, games, video, payments (utility payments, top-ups) comics, shopping, travel, career, sports, transportation, coupons, subscriptions, beauty, sports and polls.
This ecosystem, as Talbot notes, is all centred around one unifying vision.
“It’s the goal of making sure that in a day in the life of a consumer, the one app that people go to is BBM, as it can connect all their daily services, social experience and content at their fingertips,” he says.
Since becoming a part of the Emtek Group, BBM is significantly expanding its market presence in Indonesia and across the Middle East and Africa. Talbot, having worked within the mobile technology solution space for more than 20 years, has seen the transformation of the market and, more importantly, what customers are demanding right here, right now.
“Messaging apps are the new ecosystems. The average consumer has over 3.4 messaging applications on their phone, and only uses four to five apps every day. The application war as such is already won for time in app, and due to the significant cost involved in constantly trying to drive consumers to individual applications, as well as ongoing support costs around development had accelerated this opportunity,” says Talbot.
Talbot points to Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 as a pivotal moment in the changing perception of what a messaging app could and should be.
“That was the year when messaging apps surpassed social media apps,” he says. “The reality is, the killer application already exists and it is messaging. The stickiness of messaging presents a real opportunity to integrate more and more content and relevant services, increasing stickiness, increasing time in app, by allowing consumers to access multiple services they do each day via the one app and socially connecting them.”
CMW’s core vision is for BBM to be the top one or two messaging applications within its key markets, but as Talbot notes, it’s hard for any messaging service to go from zero to more than 60mn users. To that end, BBM is focused on expanding and cementing its footprint in markets where it already has a significant holding, such as Indonesia, and parts of the Middle East and Africa.
“Messaging is all about scale, and the network and connection effect that it creates,” Talbot says. “We’re continuing to scale from organic growth, while simultaneously becoming stickier by providing more services and more content into the daily lives of our consumers. The key success factor here is about partnering with ‘best of breed’ content and service providers that are local and relevant to our consumers.”
This part is key and CMW has partnered with a number of players in Indonesia already, as well as globally. Just to name a few examples of the breadth of BBM’s portfolio, it has successfully incorporated the world’s leading hotel price comparison site HotelsCombined, online e-commerce marketplace Bukalapak, and global transportation technology company Uber to name a few. IT is also working to launch a payment wallet solution with the group’s joint venture with Ant Financial called ‘DANA’, which will enable end-to-end payment across the BBM ecosystem of content and services, online and offline payments, as well as person-to-person payments within Indonesia.
“We’ve really tried to partner with the best of breed partners and integrate them into BBM,” Talbot says. “That comes back to the opportunity around the scale that we have, which has enabled us to work with partners that are very much aligned with our success.”
Creative Media Works, operating as BBM, was established in 2016 and the following 12 months has seen significant growth for BBM, but there has been one persistent challenge that Talbot has had to contend with, something that he calls the company’s “Achilles heel”.
“I can give a speech at a conference, lay out a full presentation on what BBM is and what it stands for and our ambition, and I can guarantee that people will walk away from it and still refer to us as BlackBerry Messenger,” he says. “It’s two-fold really though, because in markets like Indonesia, BlackBerry is such a well-known brand, you have to strike a balance against what has come before and what messages and brand image we want to build around the new BBM in the future.”
In light of branching off into its own venture and company culture, CMW is working very closely with BlackBerry as the company is still completing the migration of infrastructure and processes from operating under BlackBerry umbrella.
This migration brings about its own unique challenges for Talbot, as it doesn’t synergise with the agile environment that BBM is now trying to operate within.
“We are still hosting our infrastructure within the BlackBerry data centres in Canada, and we’re only halfway through the transitioning process,” he says. “Without control of our infrastructure end-to-end, it’s like trying to steer a boat without a rudder.”
Part of the transition to a new infrastructure has been its deal with Google to run on the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) in Southeast Asia. This move to the cloud promises significant improvements in performance as well as the ability to launch and scale more and more services and content.
As part of the migration, Emtek will be rationalising BBM’s existing infrastructure by leveraging on GCP custom Virtual Machine (VM) types across all of BBM’s components.
Google Cloud’s presence over the map and ability for software load balancers to be globally reachable allows BBM to centralise its infrastructure in select regions, but still provide a low latency, user experience for its global subscriber base, as network traffic will be ingested in the geographically closest Google Point-of-Presence and traverse their backbone to BBM servers.
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“Google Cloud Connect is a service offering, which will allow us to connect our Google Cloud infrastructure in Singapore and Taiwan to the BlackBerry data centres that are located in North America,” says Talbot.
“This network circuit will ride on top of Google’s Wide Area Network and subsequently interconnect with BlackBerry infrastructure over dedicated fibre optics - this allows us to be in control of our own destiny and limit any impact from other ‘network hungry’ Google customers.”
GCP became available in Singapore just this year, which has allowed CMW to host its BBM platform in “our own backyard”, making it easy to deliver services to the company’s largest user base in Indonesia.
“We are excited to be able to deploy into the GCP Singapore region, as it will allow us to offer our services closer to our largest customer base,” says Talbot. “Coupled with Google's global load balancers and extensive global network, we expect to be able to provide a low latency, high-speed experience for our users globally.”
Such a significant project, one that will see enormous quantities of data and data storage be migrated to a new platform, is not without its risks and Talbot is targeting a Q1 2018 launch date, which will provide enough time for the company to complete its full migration of infrastructure, processes, data and systems.
Operating in the mobile consumer business, one that continuously transforms and evolves at an increasing rate, Talbot is all too aware of the importance for BBM to remain at the forefront of this change in order to survive.
For BBM, the company today handles between 15,000- 20,000 customer service requests on a weekly basis, with 6,000 app reviews and approximately 2,000 comments and social engagements. This allows CMW to gain a true picture of understanding what the customers are looking for as a service solution.
“We have such a huge number of touchpoints with the customer on a daily basis where they tell us exactly what it is they don’t like and don’t think works, but more importantly what they do like and what does work,” says Talbot.
“The moment you start thinking you’re doing something right, that’s when you stop pushing yourself. It’s important to hear what’s going wrong and not tell people what you think is going right.”
As CMW continues this migration, partnering with more and more key providers in the market, the company’s immediate goal is to completely free itself of its BlackBerry heritage and truly establish itself as a new entity, and become one of the leading digital ecosystems in Indonesia.
For Talbot, he sees BBM becoming more than a simple ecosystem but a part of consumers’ everyday lives.
“We have between 50 and 55mn monthly active users at any given month in Indonesia, so we can have a huge impact on the day-to-day activities via BBM,” he says.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity for CMW to expand the BBM application into something that adds value to people’s daily lives, but we have to execute on that vision, and make sure that we take this opportunity and build something special.”