Great, I’ll text you later! Never mind, I’ll WhatsApp you later, or are you using Kik now? Ah, I remember, you switched to Viber. Just Facebook me, ok?
If you’re using a phone to send friends a quick message, it’s now more likely that you’re using one of these chat apps instead of SMS. In fact, today, the world sends more messages using chat apps than conventional SMS texts, according to a study by The Financial Times. This news is particularly troubling for carriers, who reportedly generate $120 billion per year from texting plans. Fortunately, all of these options are cheaper for consumers — especially abroad, where unlimited texting plans are hard to come by — and come with features like voice memos, read receipts, and group messaging. But is having a dozen ways to communicate with friends and family better than one? Will there ever be one messaging app to rule them all, or even one standard everybody can agree on?
The days of being able to SMS a phone number and expect a response are nearing their end
The short answer to both of these questions is a firm "no.” For better or worse, the days of being able to SMS a phone number and expect a response are nearing their end. You could hypothesize that texting, like email, will never go away, but there’s an important distinction to be made between the two communication mediums. People have stuck with email because it’s the least common denominator between two people, but also because emails aren’t price-gouged by carriers the same way SMS texts are. Texters, especially those outside the United States, will do anything they can to avoid paying for SMS when they’ve already paid enough for cellular data.
The messaging war as it exists today is getting hotter by the second. Dozens of apps like Viber, Kik, LINE, WhatsApp, Tellit, iMessage, Moped, and Facebook Messenger all want to be the place where you chat with friends. Fortunately, in such a crowded market, each company is forced to iterate quickly and launch new features to try to best its competitors. As BlackBerry Messenger taught us, the messaging app with the best features wins, but it can also disappear into the ether just as quickly as it came. "Today, the market is really fragmented," says Kik CEO Ted Livingston. "That’s a result of all messengers being basically the same." Most messaging apps include features like voice memos, location-sharing, stickers, and group messaging. What has mattered most for many of today’s leaders has been simply being in the right place (and on the right platforms) at the right time.
"That’s a result of all messengers being basically the same."
WhatsApp has an early lead, having been around longest, and is the top paid social networking app in nearly every country in which the iTunes App Store operates. Founder Jan Koum recently said that the app has over 200 million monthly active users, which makes WhatsApp bigger than Twitter. A variety of other free contenders tie for second place with tens (or hundreds) of millions of users, but they are most often separated by country or region. Kik has a good portion of the United States, while LINE has a firm hold on Japan, Viber is big in India and Russia, and Skype is hanging on in Germany and France. Will one winner ever take all? "On a per-country basis, quite possibly yes," says Viber founder Talmon Marco. But on a global basis, the answer is more complicated. Instead of having one app as dominant as SMS, there will likely be a balkanized series of silos, with different countries and regions each using their app of choice.
One app could win each country, or win a handful of countries, Marco says, for the same reason hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken around the world. "Most [messaging] traffic does not cross borders," he says. "All users in one country can communicate in one language (or with one app) and in another country a different language and app." One example is KakaoTalk, which is massively popular in places like Indonesia, South Korea, and Vietnam, but is far from the lead in most other places. There are 2 to 3 million connected devices being activated per day globally, says MessageMe co-founder Arjun Sethi. With 5 billion users from the developing world expected to come online in the next decade, that leaves a lot of room for competition. "Some of these new consumers have never used any chat services before," says Sethi. "They naturally create their own social circles and gravitate towards a local product."
"We don’t think messaging has to be a zero-sum game."
New data released today by the CTIA says that last year in the US alone, there was a 36.4 percent increase in the active use of smartphones and PDAs. "There is a tendency for this to be a winner-takes-all-market because all these apps are proprietary," says Schuyler Deerman, founder of messaging app Moped. "But we don’t think messaging has to be a zero-sum game."
"The user is happy to have five chat apps on their device. They keep track of who they talk to where," says Kik's Livingston. "I don’t think it’s ideal but people are dealing with it." The rise of messaging apps might seem like it's been a long time coming, but it took only a fraction of the time SMS texting did to reach mass adoption. "For SMS to get here, it took 21 years," a WhatsApp spokesperson told The Verge. "It took four to five years for us and a few other companies, like Apple and Facebook." Perhaps the next big paradigm shift in private communication will happen even faster. Fortunately, joining is as simple as downloading a new app.
Many technologists long for an "open spec" standard that all chat apps can agree on, in the same way email clients agreed to use IMAP and web browsers HTTP. Hundreds of carriers worldwide have agreed on standards so their users can call and text each other, but that means the greatest innovations in calling have been client-side features like caller ID and visual voicemail. "Network features" like HD Voice still aren’t within reach, and email hasn’t changed much aside from client-side Labs in Gmail, like Undo Send. The lesson is simple, says Viber’s Marco. "You can choose to interoperate or innovate," he says. "You cannot do both at the same time." Livingston agrees: "If we want to add a feature we can’t afford to wait for all the other messengers or the protocol to adopt it," he says. "We can’t have it where I send you a video, but you’re on another messenger so you can’t look at it. You need a closed system." In moving from SMS to messaging apps, it seems like the world agrees.