BlackBerry enables free Wi-Fi calling with BBM Voice

BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) today released a new, beta version of its popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) chat app, BBM 7.0, with new BlackBerry-specific Wi-Fi calling features, called BBM Voice.

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BBM Voice lets BlackBerry users place phone calls over Wi-Fi networks to other BlackBerry users across the globe, so they can bypass cellular networks and save on their monthly allotments of cellular-voice minutes.

The BBM Voice features are built directly into BBM, and users need only open up a chat window with a contact and then tap a BBM Voice button in the upper right-hand corner of the window to initiate a call. The BBM Voice button also displays BBM contact status by turning green when someone's available, red when they're busy or gray when they're not connected to a Wi-Fi network or are otherwise unavailable.

The BBM Voice phone screens are designed to look just like the native BlackBerry phone screens, so they'll be familiar to BlackBerry users. BBM Voice users can still receive cellular phone calls while on BBM Voice calls, but the BBM calls are disconnected when a cellular call is answered. And BBM Voice users can still use their smartphones for BBM chats or other activities while on BBM Voice calls.

Wireless carriers haven't exactly embraced Wi-Fi calling features on smartphones in the past, but RIM says carriers cannot disable or modify the BBM Voice features to force customers to use cellular networks for voice calls. BlackBerry users do, however, need to have a BlackBerry data plan through a wireless carrier to use BBM and BBM Voice.

BBM 7.0 with the new voice-over-Wi-Fi features is compatible with BlackBerry devices running OS 6.0 and higher at this time, but RIM plans to release BBM Voice features for BlackBerry OS 5.0 at a later date. RIM says it currently has no plans to enable BBM Voice calling features over cellular networks. BBM Voice calls are restricted to one-on-one conversations; BBM Voice does not support group calling.

In addition to the BBM Voice features, BBM 7.0 also has 16 new emoticons; new in-app update notifications that let users know as soon as BBM updates are available; and new BlackBerry ID backup/restore features that let you login into your BBID via BBM to restore contacts and settings on new devices.

The BBM Voice features are unique, and they could certainly be helpful in reducing the use of monthly cellular voice minutes or for placing international calls. But because BBM Voice only works with BlackBerrys, the overall value is limited, especially with so many current smartphone users choosing rival platforms like Apple's iOS and Google Android over BlackBerry.

BBM 7.0 and BBM Voice are available for free to BlackBerry users via RIM's BlackBerry Beta Zone website. (Note: BlackBerry Beta Zone isn't available in all regions, so BBM 7.0 is only available to BlackBerry users in supported countries.)

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