RIM announces “BBM Voice” (gives BBM users free voice calling to over Wi-Fi)

With RIM’s BlackBerry 10 announcement earlier this week – now officially launching on January 30th, 2013 – there seems to be some much needed enthusiasm running through their veins. Today the company has declared that their popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service will be updated to version 7.0 and brings a bunch of new features.

I had a conversation with James Tantram, Senior Product Manager for BBM, and he noted that BlackBerry Messenger now has over 60 million users around the world, with “billions of messages sent each day.” The company will continue to expand BBM as a “social networking experience” and communication tool, but stray from the “real time chat” service to a “real time engagement” model. The reason being is because they’ve noticed that their customers needs have changed. Included in BBM 7 – which is currently available in Beta for BlackBerry smartphones – includes BBM Voice.

BBM Voice gives BlackBerry users the ability to make free voice calls over Wi-Fi within BBM to your BBM contacts, anywhere in the world. Tantram stated that BBM Voice is currently compatible with devices running BlackBerry OS 6 and 7, but there’s also future plans to make it available for those left behind with OS 5. BBM allows users to see if your message has been delivered and read. With BBM Voice it’s taken to another level as you can immediately connect to your contact and see if they’re online and available. An indicator will appear at the top of the display either showing Online, Offline, in a voice chat, or that their device doesn’t support BBM Voice. In addition, users can start a BBM Voice call directly from a BBM chat, plus also have a BBM conversation while in a BBM Voice call.

BBM 7 will also see 16 new emoticons, including a “hang loose” sign, mad, camera icon, lightbulb, sun, rain, thunderstorm, snow, tired and what looks to be dizzy. Also coming in the upgrade is an In App Upgrade Notification that will do just that, notify you when an BBM update is available (works for OS 5, 6, 7 devices). Finally, RIM has also linked your BBM info (display name, picture, contacts, groups) directly to your BBID, thus making it eventually easier to switch/upgrade to BlackBerry 10 without any frustration.

BBM Voice is just another option other than simply BBMing. I can see it being really useful for anyone who wants to save on carrier minutes, especially businesses. However, most Canadian carriers have switched to offer unlimited voice plans. Tantram also noted that the ability to have several BBM Voice contacts on a call at one time, similar to a conference calling, is not yet on the plan but possibly being considered.

This is one step closer to BBM Video. Thorsten Heins, RIM’s CEO, confirmed that BlackBerry 10 will have BBM Video and we should see them officially unveil this on January 30th.

BBM 7 will be available to the masses “before the end of the year,” but if you’re interested to give it a go now you can head on over to the Beta Zone and download BBM version 7 and BBM Voice here