Messenger apps, disrupting text messaging (SMS)

Here are my thoughts on messenger applications, and if you read beyond, there’s an idea worth thinking about.

Dramatis Personnae:

  • Beluga: Free, Private group messaging on your mobile (with Facebook integration). Works on iOS and Android. Created by ex-Googler’s. Recently acquired by Facebook.
  • Foound: A fun and easy way to organise hangouts with friends and follow their activities. Works on iOS only. Funded, round probably led by Neoteny Labs (a Joi Ito firm). Based in Singapore.
  • WhatsApp Messenger: Cross-platform mobile messaging app, works on iOS, BlackBerry, Android, Nokia. Group chat included. Costs money on some platforms (USD$0.99 on iOS, free trial for a year on BlackBerry/Android, etc.). Started by a couple of ex-Yahoo! chaps.
  • Kik Messenger: Text. Photos. Groups. Its like BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). I’ve not used it extensively, but its brought to you by some ex-RIM chaps, folk that worked on BBM. Just took USD$8 million in Series A funding, including from interesting firms like Union Square Ventures (and Fred Wilson joins the board).
  • PingChat! – Similar to WhatsApp and Kik, it works on iOS, BlackBerry and Android. Has support for video and voice notes, but I have not played with it much.
  • TalkBox – text is boring, why not use voice. Its basically push-to-talk in software. iOS only.

Today I use BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) a lot. I carry an Android and BlackBerry device in my pocket most of the time. If friends have a BlackBerry, we’re usually chatting on it via BBM, and we’ve given up the idea of sending a SMS. BBM also supports group chats, which means you can coordinate things amongst groups of people quite easily. The only “downside” to BBM is that I have to pay for the BIS service on a monthly basis (it enables push email for 10+1 email accounts, plus gives me BBM). BBM allows me to message friends all around the world, with zero cost. I tend not to use BBM when I’m roaming because data charges are ridiculous.

Which now brings me to discuss messenger apps like WhatsApp and Kik. I’ve been using WhatsApp for quite some time now, on my BlackBerry and my Android device. I also happen to have it running on test Symbian devices as well as know heaps of people running it on iOS devices. Its got traction. It uses my unlimited data plan which I pay for monthly, but when I’m roaming, again I do not use WhatsApp. Kik is the new kid on the block, received funding, and is backed by a serious team of ex-RIM folk. In my phonebook, I don’t see it gaining much traction, as WhatsApp seems to still be prime. Kik is free, so I wonder what their plans are to make money. Maybe Kik has solid management, which is what the VCs looked for. Kik is however not on the BlackBerry platform, and RIM is suing the company.

Foound and Beluga. Foound has been around for about a year, and I think it was myopic of the team to just focus on iOS. Yes, the iOS is popular in Singapore, but to gain traction you have to grow beyond just that market. Not focusing on Android and BlackBerry were probably huge mistakes; maybe its time for the company to pivot? Beluga is kind of like Foound, works on more than just iOS, and it seems its more integrated, with its Facebook logins. Of course, Facebook acquired them (team of three folk); their team is much smaller/leaner than the Foound team.

An idea worth implementing

Here is a suggestion for differentiation. What annoys me the most with BBM is that I use it to chat with friends and groups of friends while I’m on the move. When I’m chained to my desk, I would rather not use my BlackBerry to respond to messages. Its all data anyway, so why not offer a desktop client?

Google does this kind of well with Google Chat. It runs on my mobile with data enabled, and when I’m on my desktop, I just fire up Adium or Pidgin and I can still chat with folk. It does not handle group chat though.

WhatsApp is tied to my mobile number, for example. It works over IP. Why not allow me to login with my username (phone number, unique identifier) and password on my laptop, so I can write/reply to messages via my keyboard? It would improve my productivity tremendously, and it is a service I would be willing to pay for.

Finishing thoughts

Where does PingChat! and TalkBox fit in? They all do group chat. TalkBox focuses on the voice aspects of it. Are messenger apps the new group buying sites? This is becoming a crowded space, and WhatsApp looks like it is the most-cross platform at the moment.

The future is with messenger apps, but I doubt it’s going to bust any SMS profit cartel. It will make a huge dent, but frequent travellers will generally not be using data when travelling. And without data, all these apps are dead (unless you want to support the data profit cartel). When will we see unlimited data (and roaming data) become cheaper?

Best wishes to Team Beluga, Foound, WhatsApp, Kik, PingChat! and Talkbox. I see an exciting 24 months ahead in this space.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed with your point on desktop clients. I would love to have a desktop client for Whatsapp for example. Granted some might say how different is it from using chat like MSN/YM/Gtalk but Whatsapp mimics the SMS in a way that you dont feel like you’re using a different program. Not to mentions issues with those chat clients with certain phones.

    I have Kik on my iPhone as well but like you said, less of my contacts are using it. Also when i first started using it, it seemed rather slow to respond most times. Perhaps its better now?


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