Privacy concerns or envy? RIM boots Kik off BlackBerry

IM client's autospamming of user contacts the likely cause for removal from BlackBerry, but Kik claims it's a victim of RIM's hypocrisy

Not all David-and-Goliath stories are cut and dry. Case in point in the mobile world is RIM's recent decision to cut off all support for a piping-hot IM client called Kik. The startup behind the software, as well as some of its advocates, are suggesting that RIM acted out of envy by removing a chat app that competes with BlackBerry's existing IM tools. In reality, though, the David in this story may have given the Goliath just cause to squish him.

Launched about a month ago, Kik has enjoyed incredible success. The company claims 2.5 million users now, including a subscription surge from zero to 1 million in the first 15 days of availability. The client's allure is evident: It enables seamless IM communication among iPhones, Android devices, and BlackBerry devices.

However, Kik has endured criticism for crossing privacy lines. When installed, the app would automatically send an alert to every single contact in the user's address book who was also running Kik, letting them know the user was now on the Kik network.

This little feature prompted outcry from users, who complained that they did not, in fact, want everyone in their address book to know they were using Kik. "Kik has a serious privacy flaw," wrote a user on GetSatisfaction.com earlier this month. "[It] ties in a person's username with their email address. Kik then sorts through the person's address book to find potential friends.... [A] user may not want someone that is in their address book to know they have a Kik account -- but they will because if they have your email address, then they also have your Kik username without authorization or adding that person to your friends list."

That indeed proved to be the case for some users: "Had I known that my address book was going to get blasted with a spam message, including business contacts, I never would have chosen the user name I did, let alone sign up for Kik," wrote another user.

Another lamented that "some people (ex-boyfriends and such), do not need yet another way to get a hold of me! I want to be able to either hide myself, change my username, or I will delete my Kik account ASAP!"

Kik CEO Ted Livingston acknowledged the problem in the same forum, apologizing profusely and saying the company hadn't foreseen a "user case" where users wouldn't want all their contacts to know to they were on Kik. "[W]here we thought this feature would generate harmless recommendations with your friends, now Kik has gotten so popular that it is also very possible that it will recommend people that you may not want to talk to, such as colleagues," he wrote.

These concerns over privacy may have prompted the following responses from RIM. On Nov. 12, the company removed the Kik client from App World, and now RIM stopped support for the Kik push service, meaning Kik messages take as long as an hour to arrive to BlackBerry devices. RIM was vague on the reason for its actions, simply stating, "Following discussions with Kik, the app was removed from BlackBerry App World on November 12. Upon further investigation, RIM concluded that Kik had breached contractual obligations. Based on the broad scope and seriousness of the issues and concerns, RIM terminated its agreements with Kik and withdrew RIM's support for Kik's service."

That statement came in response to a public letter to RIM from Kik's Livingston, who said that RIM pulled the plug on the service the very same day Kik was ready to roll out features that would provide users with "additional privacy controls," as well as features to reduce the client's drain on battery power.

With these fixes now available, Livingston wrote, "we are confident there is no reason service should be denied to Kik users."

Livingston goes on to subtly cast RIM in the bullying Goliath role, a company trying to crush a feisty young and competitive startup: "Some people have suggested that we're 'too similar' to RIM's instant messaging product, and that somehow this is behind their decision. We would be surprised and disappointed if there is any truth to this, as RIM has always championed the BlackBerry ecosystem as an open platform. However, if true, the implications would go well beyond Kik to the entire mobile community, users and developers alike."

That argument doesn't really hold water, given that there are other IM clients available on App World. The more likely reason is that RIM concluded that Kik had too far overstepped users' privacy boundaries to allow in the RIM universe, and that Kik's fixes were too little, too late, or both.

There is one other piece to this mystery, though -- why has RIM taken action against Kik while Google and Apple have not? Apple in particular has a reputation for being careful in protecting its users. The answer may be that Kik rolled out a fix for iPhone quickly enough to suit Apple's tastes.

This article, "Privacy concerns or envy? RIM boots Kik off BlackBerry," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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