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Top 5 free BlackBerry Messenger-style cross-platform chat apps

Ever since early in the evolution of the BlackBerry, RIM's BlackBerry Messenger has been the envy of all other smartphone users. By creating an always-on Instant Messaging platform that linked phones to phones, RIM managed to provide a service that not only replaced the need for text and multimedia messaging, but also didn't interfere with any desktop IM protocol that you might use. OK, some desktop IM services like Gtalk let you take the 'focus' from your desktop when you log-on using your smartphone, having all messages directed there; but it's not the same as having a dedicated always-on, always-mobile IM service.

Up until recently, BBM was about the only application to provide this kind of phone-to-phone messaging service over data, but with the dawn of the App Stores, a whole host of BBM-clones have sprung up. Today we're going to be taking a look at five of the best free and, for the most part, cross-platform solutions. It's important to note that none of these apps will connect you with the BBM service, nor are they capable of connecting to any other messaging service than their own.

PingChat!

PingChat!First up is one of the better known and, until Apple decided to launch an ill-fated music social network, better named apps: PingChat! (their emphasis not mine). Ping allows you to connect to friends using a Ping! ID, something akin to a BBM pin, but easier to remember because you can pick it yourself. Once you've shared your ID, or found friends via email, Facebook or Twitter, you can send text messages, photos, videos, voice memos, contacts and map locations -- pretty much anything you might want to send to a friend can be sent using Ping.

Messages are sent in real-time over the data network and pushed to the recipient. This means that if you happen to have a poor connection, sending messages can take a little while. That's going to be the same for all these BBM-clone apps, but it's important to realize that Ping, like the others, will require a data network, and can't send messages over the voice network like an SMS. Once the message is away, you'll see a little S and a tick indicating the message has been sent. That turns to a tick with an R, when the recipient reads the message -- a nice feature if the message you're sending needs an urgent reply. PingChat! also packs group messaging and 'Social Profiles,' which allow you to display a photo, status message and some information about yourself to confirmed contacts -- frankly it's something I'll never use myself and thankfully you don't have to.

PingChat! is available on iOS, Android and BlackBerry, and is ad-supported.

Kik Messenger

Kik MessengerKik Messenger experienced a quick rise in popularity, mainly due to its incredibly annoying contact farming, which culminated in its removal from the BlackBerry App World by RIM. That could be enough to put you off this pretty slick and fast BBM clone; but, there's quite a lot to like about Kik, and now that they've toned down the contact farming, it could be a good choice.

Kik takes things back to basics -- it's purely a text messenger. Sure you can send emoticons, but that's about it. For the purpose of a SMS replacement, Kik works brilliantly. It's fast, has send, delivered and read receipts, shows you when the other person is typing and is available for iOS, Android and, in the near future, for Windows Phone 7. It's a shame it was pulled from the BlackBerry App World, but hopefully we'll see it reappear once things have been resolved between Kik and RIM.

While it's lacking a few features that I would like in an instant messenger on my smartphone, like location and photo sharing, Kik casts aside the frills for a fast, slick and simple, text messaging experience.

ChatPlus

ChatPlusWhile ChatPlus is one of the less well-known entries into this top five, the app wields features that none of the others do. These include the ability to translate text via a Google translate robot, which is surprisingly useful, the ability to write free hand notes, and send location data. ChatPlus has decent customization options too. You can change the chat window appearance, choose whether to preview a new message using an iOS push notification, as well as create contact groups for easier management.

The biggest downside to ChatPlus is that it's currently limited to iOS. But if you happen to only ever want to talk to people with iPhones, then ChatPlus has a lot going for it. It's free and supported by iAds, which are as annoying as any other ad, but free's free right?

LiveProfile

LiveProfileLiveProfile, as the name might suggest, markets itself as more than a simple messenger. More than a messenger in this case means status updates, a profile with photo plus Twitter and Facebook integration. Frankly, the social aspects are done better elsewhere, and who really needs another social network.

Thankfully the phone-to-phone messaging features of LiveProfile are pretty solid. You can send text messages, photos and videos, all while getting sent, delivered and read confirmations. LiveProfile will also tell you when your contact is typing, which is useful if you happen to be about to switch apps mid-conversation. Messages are pushed to your contacts just like all the other options here, and the app is available on iOS and Android with a BlackBerry app on its way, so most bases are covered.

Beluga Messenger

Beluga MessengerUnlike most of the other phone-to-phone messenger apps featured here, Beluga Messenger's main focus is group messaging. By creating 'Pods' of specified contacts, you can message said group all in one go. People can then reply to that Pod and message everyone in the group simultaneously. Each Pod is private too, which means you can have any number of Pods with any configuration of your contact list, keeping each Pod separate from the next. It's much simpler in practice than it sounds, but you can have as many pods as you like, and share with them your location, text messages, and photos.

Beluga has native apps available for both iOS and Android, but it also has a Web app for both desktop and mobile browsers, making it truly cross-platform. It's incredibly useful to be able to send out messages to a group of friends from the desktop, and then carry on the group conversation on your phone, regardless of what smartphone operating system it happens to be running. Certainly makes arranging parties and private group meet-ups easy, and removes the need for Facebook, at least for me. One to check out then, if you're into group chats.

And finally

That's your lot for now, but frankly put, any one of these messenger apps will probably serve you well. The problem with any of these BBM-clones is that they're only useful when all your friends use the same app. There are also paid-apps that provide a similar service, like the 99c WhatsApp Messenger, but I've found it difficult enough to persuade people to use a free app, let alone one they have to pay for.

If you have a favorite free phone-to-phone messenger app that I haven't covered here, drop it down in the comments and let your fellow DLS readers know why they should be using it.

Tags: Android, apps, Beluga, BlackBerry, Cellphones, ChatPlus, features, Hands-on, iOS, kik messenger, KikMessenger, LiveProfile, PingChat, reviews, social networking, SocialNetworking

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