BlackBerry is testing whether the money-transfer business will help the smartphone maker keep users hooked on its instant-messaging service.

BlackBerry is beginning a pilot project with PT Bank Permata, the Indonesian bank partly owned by Standard Chartered Plc, to allow users to transfer money to their contacts over the BlackBerry Messenger service, executives of both companies said in interviews.

BlackBerry is looking to Indonesia, a country of 249 million people where it’s the leading smartphone brand, to develop a feature it hopes can protect the messenger service from losing customers to WhatsApp Inc. and other rival services. The plan could lead the Waterloo, Ontario-based company into an industry dominated by Western Union Co. and MoneyGram International Inc.

“It’s tough to get into the market as you’ve got a lot of competition and there are a lot of compliance and logistics issues,” said Larry Berlin, an analyst at First Analysis Corp. in Chicago. “Could it be the right play if people like the phones? Yeah, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Bianto Surodjo, head of electronic channels at the Jakarta- based bank, said he believes BBM Money will have “a few hundred thousand” users at Permata within 12 months. The application is designed to be as simple as repaying a friend for lunch if she picks up the tab, he said.

“If they want to do the payment, they just go into BBM Money and they transfer in a simple way as if they were chatting,” he said Feb. 25 in a telephone interview from Jakarta. “We want to put financial activities into customers’ habits because BlackBerry Messenger is becoming like the culture here for people to communicate.”

BBM users who want to send or receive money have to download BlackBerry Money from BlackBerry’s app store. Sending money to another BBM user with a Permata account will be free, while transfer to a contact who banks elsewhere will incur a charge of 5,000 rupiah (52 cents). Permata has about 2 million customers and operates 289 branches across Indonesia.

The trial is limited to those with an Indonesian mobile- phone number who have a BlackBerry 5, 6 or 7 generation device. It isn’t available for the new BlackBerry 10 devices that are being introduced this month in Asia, the company said. No date has yet been announced for the flagship Z10 model in Indonesia.

T.A. McCann, vice president of BlackBerry Messenger, said BBM Money is one of an array of features being added to the messaging service to boost its appeal.

“BBM was traditionally thought of as just a chat client,” McCann said in a telephone interview . With the addition of video to the messaging service and now BBM Money, “we’re really trying to work hard to show clear examples of how we’re expanding BBM well beyond just chat,” he said.

The trial is limited to one bank in Indonesia for now given the complexity and regulatory issues involved, McCann said.

“Assuming the trial goes well, you could assume all kinds of different expansion whether it be additional banks, addition countries, additional devices and of course all kinds of functionality,” he said.

BBM Money is just one feature in a larger makeover of the company’s messaging service, and McCann said he doesn’t expect the financial service alone to draw new customers or win back those that had abandoned BlackBerry.

“Is somebody going to buy a BlackBerry in the United States because it potentially has got BBM Money? No,” he said. “Would they buy it in Indonesia because of BBM Money? Maybe, but in that case we have lots of reasons why they want to have a BlackBerry, and BBM is one of them.”

The number of BlackBerry subscribers worldwide dropped from 80 million to 79 million at the end of last quarter, after a decade of steady growth, as sales fell 47 percent from a year earlier. The company doesn’t provide figures for its Indonesian subscriber base.

There are more than 60 million BBM customers worldwide, meaning about three out of every four BlackBerry subscribers, use its free instant-messaging service, which allows users to see when the recipient has read a message.

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