April 24, 2013
Enola Labs

Enola Labs creates custom strategy and products for mobile and web.

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Over the past two years, mobile messaging apps have seen adoption rates skyrocket. Users from around the globe have flocked to these applications because of their intuitive interfaces that provide the ability to easily create personal profiles, integrate and grow your network of friends, and efficiently share information. These may be reasons enough for you to download and try out one of the several options available, however some are even bypassing carrier plans altogether and opting for the free messaging and calling that these applications provide.

Since adoption rates, along with messaging app features and functionality, increased exponentially over the past 2 years, users have found several ways to take advantage of the variety of messaging application offerings currently available. Most recently, media coverage has focused on these applications providing another line of communication during not only the bombings in Boston, but also the earthquake that occurred in Sichuan, China. Following the events, networks were overwhelmed with individuals attempting to get in touch with family and friends. Thousands were able to rely on the low bandwidth usage their messaging apps provide to make sure their loved ones were safe.

Who are the key players?

Some of the larger players in the mobile application messaging industry that you may have heard of include WhatsApp and Kik. Both are successful North American startups that have seen impressive usage rates. However, in foreign markets the key players seem to be Kakao Talk and the quickly growing WeChat.

WeChat is a mobile text and voice messaging service developed by Tencent in China with over 300 million users. The social app has the ability to aggregate your methods of sharing and communication in one easy to control interface. The application offers several features including text messaging, hold-to-talk voice messaging, broadcast messaging, and image sharing.

In a side-by-side comparison, WeChat out duels WhatsApp, the most popular messaging application, in many instances. WeChat supports a more robust group messaging platform, enhanced video calling and social network integration. The app even has a few special features including “Look Around” which allows you to see active WeChat members in your particular area and connect with them, as well as a “Shake” feature that allows you to connect randomly with others using the same feature in a chatroulette-esque fashion.

WeChat is backed by Tencent, a Chinese internet services company that boasts a market cap of around $80 billion. Since its founding, the mobile app has focused on expansion into several key markets including Asia and Europe. After some initial success to the tune of 300 million total users in just over 2 years, the company may now be setting it’s sights on attempting to take control of the market in India.

Just this week, Tencent announced a large marketing push planned in India. Rumor has it that getting the word out about their messaging app will involve front page newspaper advertisements and ads debuting during the incredibly popular Indian Premier League Cricket Tournament. Since mobile adoption rates have been growing exponentially in India, locking down the mobile messaging application market early could pay off as the Indian market continues to mature.

Viber is another popular competitor in this market. It’s a Cyprus-based company with development centers in Belarus and Israel, and was founded by American-Israeli entrepreneur Talmon Marco. With Viber, in addition to being able to send instant messages with other users of the app, you also have the ability to share photos, built-in emoticons & stickers, and your location. It also supports group messaging with a limit of 39 people in a conversation. But what makes Viber stand out among its competitors is not its mobile messaging features—since WeChat probably has Viber beat when it comes to those—rather its ability to make cross-platform VoIP calls.

If you’re in the USA and want to call your friend in Spain, just hit him up on Viber and you can talk for as long as you want without incurring a single cent in international calling charges. To add to its versatility, Viber is also available in 10 languages and features support for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS, Symbian, Bada, and even Series 40, an operating system for mid-tier feature phones (though voice calling is only available for iOS, Android, and Nokia’s Windows Phone. HD voice calling is planned for Windows Phone 8, however). It’s this multi-channel support and sensitivity to the global mobile marketplace that has given Viber its reputation for being a highly effective app for making free phone calls no matter where both parties may be—so long as they have some kind of Wi-fi or data connection, of course. Its 175 million users (and counting) are a testament to that fact.

Resentment and Crackdown

Since mobile carriers have traditionally been the gatekeepers to our voice and text connections over the last decade, it is understandable that mobile messaging apps may make them feel threatened. Combine the complex instant messaging platforms like WeChat with mobile-enabled VoIP solutions like Viber, and depending on who you’re talking to, you might be able to avoid “unnecessary” calling or messaging fees entirely.

The mobile messaging market is poised to generate $140 billion in annual revenue over the next 3 years. Mobile users have long been less than ecstatic about carrier messaging fees. At around $20 for unlimited messaging plans that cost almost nothing to handle on the carrier’s end and some plans that have capped limits and charge extra for further texts received or sent, carriers have enjoyed an incredible windfall from the messaging market since the 90’s. Where global carriers have traditionally taken advantage of the enormous market for messaging, led by SMS texting, they are now facing high levels of competition. Revenues lost by carriers due to the shift to messaging apps has been estimated by market research firm Ovum to have reached $23 billion at the end of 2012.

Some governments have felt carrier pressure as well as an internal struggle to control information flowing throughout their country and are beginning to take action. Recently, the Chinese information ministry has been pressed by Chinese telecom companies to crackdown on previously mentioned WeChat who has been eating into their profits throughout the region. It has been reported that the Chinese government may ask Tencent, the maker of the messaging app, to pay a mobile operators fee to allow the application to send messages over their networks. The move would be an interesting one at a time when the Chinese government has been pushing efforts that encourage local technology entrepreneurs to innovate. You can see the problems that start arising when you tell these mobile startups to innovate but only as long as it doesn’t cut into the profits of our enormous government owned corporations.

In another region, earlier this month CNN reported that Saudi Arabia might block WhatsApp and Viber as well as Skype. Their reasoning is that, in their current state, these applications “don’t comply with rules and regulatory conditions,” but they fail to go the extra mile and say which rules they’re breaking. Eman Al-Nafjan, a prominent Saudi blogger, believes that this is just a pretext to put an end to communication between human rights activists and those who may be seeking to organize protests, which are prohibited by law. As of this date, the Saudi government has not acted on this threat, perhaps out of fear for the backlash that it might cause.

However, it does seem that Viber is currently blocked in some places like the United Arab Emirates, although there are VPN service plans being offered to residents of that country so they can circumvent the ban. Some Syrians have faced a similar problem, and in the same vein, options for getting around the ban exist via VPN. Likewise, Iranian and Lebanese Viber users have also reported sporadic connectivity problems over the past couple of months, which Viber representatives have chalked up to a clampdown by those respective governments.

The future of mobile messaging apps

The undeniable fact is that mobile messaging applications will continue their widespread usage and adoption. The questions are: What applications win and in what regions of the world? Are the profits shared between the mobile application companies and carriers? And what role do governments play in different regions in enforcing the profit sharing? Check back with us as time goes on for the answers.