BlackBerry Messenger is expanding to iOS and Android

BlackBerry also launches womens scholarship program at Live event

BlackBerry's free Messenger service is being expanded to work with iOS and Android devices.

Analysts regarded the move -- announced today at BlackBerry Live -- as mostly positive, since it could help an improving BlackBerry expand its reach beyond its own new Z10 and Q10 smartphone customers.

Today, there are 60 million BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) customers, a tiny fraction of the number of messages sent via Facebook or Twitter. But BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins said BBM users are very active, sending 10 billion messages a day, and half the messages received are read within 20 seconds.

Opening up BBM to iOS 6 devices and above and Android Ice Cream Sandwich devices and above will expand BBM's reach, Heins said.

"BBM is so great that it's too good to keep only to ourselves,"Heins said during an upbeat keynote presentation at the event, which is mainly for BlackBerry developers and partners. "Why now? It's a statement of confidence, that BlackBerry 10 is strong and the response is so good that it's time that BBM become multi-platform."

BBM's interoperability with Android and iOS is now in beta, and will launch commercially this summer, Heins said. At first, only text messaging will be available to individuals and groups on other platforms. Features already available in BlackBerry 10 on BBM such as voice and video and screen sharing will be added later this year, with updates every two to four weeks.

Heins also announced a new BBM feature called channels, which allows Twitter-like functions to find groups of BBM users, much as Twitter uses hashtags to allow users to view comments about common themes. BlackBerry announced it will offer channels around its celebrity endorser, Alicia Keys, as well as Formula One racing fans, among others.

BBM started as a text messaging service, but it now runs over the data channel, not the separate text channel. As such, it is not quite like Facebook or Twitter, because it doesn't operate in a public cloud, meaning that you have to manually enter a friend's ID to connect. "Think of BBM as a private Facebook or Twitter," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "BBM has morphed into much more than texting, since it now includes video chat, screen sharing, music and audio."

While BBM is largely unknown in the U.S., it is especially popular in Asian countries and the Middle East, where BlackBerry continues to have a strong customer base. Overall, BlackBerry has 74 million subscribers globally.

The new BlackBerry Q5 qwerty phone also announced today will be sold in emerging markets, where the BBM service is especially popular, said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Milanesi and Gold both said moving BBM to other platforms is a smart move; other analysts were less positive.

Rather than competing with Facebook or Twitter, BlackBerry is more interested in letting potential customers know that they can buy a BlackBerry device and also communicate with their friends on iOS and Android hardware, Milanesi said. "Now if I can talk to everybody, BlackBerry might seem more attractive to me, because BBM is free," she said. "It makes sense."

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