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CES 2014: BlackBerry executives tout BBM, say phones still key part of business

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LAS VEGAS -- 2013 wasn't a great year for BlackBerry, but the company says it is moving forward.

The Canadian tech company sent a slew of executives to CES this week to reassure the public about its prospects and to promote its latest products. But unlike last year, when execs proudly showed off BlackBerry 10 smartphones at the consumer electronics trade show, the focus this year was more on the software side.

Back in October, BlackBerry released its BlackBerry Messaging app for Android and iOS. The instant messaging app quickly amassed 40 million new registered users on those two platforms in the first 60 days.

Now the company is gearing up to release several new BBM features.

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Android and iOS users can soon expect free voice calls to any BBM contact anywhere in the world and the ability to subscribe to and create their own "channels" via the social media networking feature BBM Channels.

All versions of BBM will be getting faster and easier sharing of photos, voice notes and location as well as new emoticons.

BBM has been one of the most popular services on BlackBerrys, but with so many people migrating to other devices, the company is hoping that BBM remains a go-to feature for mobile users regardless of what brand smartphone they use.

With so many competing services in the U.S. and abroad -- including regular text messaging, iMessages, Kakao, Line and WeChat among them -- BBM will face stiff competition.

"There is this strange perception that BBM is a latter entrant into the mobile messaging space when in fact -- and I don't think we're overstating it -- we created it the better part of seven years ago," said David Proulx, senior director of BBM business development. "We were there first. We've spent a lot of time and a lot of effort understanding the nuances."

During an interview with The Times at the Monte Carlo hotel, Proulx said BBM has the advantage when it comes to reliability, ease of use, privacy and security.

Proulx said there currently is "no clear dominant instant messaging player" in the market, but that he expected that to change in the coming years.

"The plan for BBM is we will be a -- or the -- dominant provider," he said. 

With BlackBerry focusing so much on software and enterprise lately, there has been speculation that the company is pulling back from its device business. But Proulx dismissed that notion, saying BlackBerry was "not abandoning the consumer market."

He added that although three out of four of the company's business operations are software focused, "hardware is still a key part of the business."

"By no means are we exiting devices or are they of diminished importance."

At the convention, BlackBerry also said new Chief Executive John Chen was dropping the "interim" portion of his title and that the company had ceased looking for a new CEO. Former CEO Thorsten Heins was ousted in November.

"It's correct to say we are still in a period of transition. However, we have a plan," Proulx said.

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