Mobile Messaging Apps: A Primer

The global mobile messaging app space is the new social battleground. Startups that would have had little chance of unseating Facebook’s dominance on the web are attacking Zuckerberg’s empire by refocusing social networking around the mobile phone contacts book. Enter your phone number, and these apps already know who all your friends are. No need to go laboriously recreating your social graph. Your network is already sitting on your phone, just waiting to be switched on.

Smartphone growth is clearly fuelling the trend. More and more cross-platform messaging apps are exploding onto the scene to take advantage of the powerful feature-set of a comms device that’s never far from its owner – racing to leverage the opportunity to disenfranchise Facebook and build comms and content empires of their own, adding more and more social features to keep users engaged and socialising within that app, not elsewhere — from photo-sharing with built in Instagram-style filters, to HD video calling, to meme-creation tools, to cutesy cartoon characters. The phone is the tool being used to drive a wedge between Facebook and its users.

Little by little, these mobile messaging apps are eating away at the mindshare of grand web-based social networks, even as they recreate their own social content platforms online to extend and bolster their mobile offerings. Facebook was slow to recognise the threat but has since countered with its own Messenger app, and additional offerings like SnapChat-rival Poke. How seriously Facebook is taking the mobile messaging app threat now is evident in its most recent mobile effort:  Facebook Home – an Android launcher that seeks to elbow its way past rival apps by foregrounding Facebook’s own chat channel atop other apps.

But Home may already be too little, too late. With limited availability, the launcher can’t yet reach very far – it’s had only around one million downloads to-date — and will likely never make it onto iOS. There’s no word on active users of Home but the launcher has failed to impress those who are downloading it, with only a two-star rating on Google Play so far. Facebook’s strategy of trying to stop the runaway mobile messaging train by standing on the train tracks looks like a pretty forlorn hope. A better bet is for it to drive usage of its own mobile messaging apps – but that’s where the geographical variation of messaging platforms poses a huge challenge.

Different messaging apps are doing well in different geographies. There’s huge and growing mobile messaging variation, as more and more companies wise up to the opportunity and launch their own messaging attacks. A recent example is the Bharti/Softbank telco joint venure messaging app, Hike, that has grabbed more than five million users since launching in December. Another contender is U.S. startup, which launched its messaging play last month in 155 countries and 32 languages. Add to that Google looks to be readying a new unified messaging play of its own, codenamed Babel.

Below is a primer on some of the biggest mobile messaging players in the space at present – it’s by no means a comprehensive list, but even looking at this handful of larger players gives a sense of how diverse the space is, and how many serious assailants are scaling the walls of Facebook’s grand social citadel. Zuckerberg and co are now fighting a war on scores and scores of fronts. The big question for Facebook is whether there can be just one social messaging winner, and if not how can it stay relevant when there’s so much chatter taking place elsewhere?

As Enders Analysis analyst Benedict Evans notes in his latest newsletter: “There are so many mobile comms apps with over 1m downloads on Google Play that I’ve given up counting. Not clear to me that there’ll be a consolidation, either.”

[Top image by stevedotcarter via Flickr]

Mobile’s Biggest Messaging Apps



Birthday: April 2009 (mobile app)

Age: 49 months

Basic service cost: Free

Comms abilities: text, VoIP, group chats, send videos/photos

Special powers: emoji, desktop client

User-base: 280 million+

Geographical reach: Global

Stronghold: Unknown

Languages supported: 16

Latest reported revenues: $800 million when Microsoft acquired the company in 2011



whatsapp screen shot android

Birthday: July 2009

Age: 46 months

Basic service cost: Free for a year then $0.99 yearly subscription; or one-off cost of $0.99

Comms abilities: text, group chat, share location/photos/audio/video

Special powers: preloaded on a dedicated hard key on Nokia Asha 210, anti-adverts

User-base: 200 million+

Geographical reach: 100+ countries

Stronghold: Spain

Languages supported: 23

Latest reported revenues: Rumoured to be $100 million annually




Birthday:  March 2010

Age: 38 months

Basic service cost: Free

Comms abilities: text, VoIP, group chats/calls, send photos/audio/video, photo wall

Special powers: games, stickers/emoji, celebrity accounts, Android launcher in the pipeline

User-base: 90 million

Geographical reach: Global

Stronghold:  South Korea

Languages supported: 13

Latest reported revenues: $45 million in 2012


Kik Messenger


Birthday: October 2010

Age: 30 months

Basic service cost: Free

Comms abilities: text, share photos/images/videos

Special powers:  emoji, cards: aka HTML5 apps inside the platform including games, meme-generator, sketches, YouTube videos etc; open API

User-base: 50 million+

Geographical reach: Global

Stronghold: Canada/Australia

Supported languages: 13

Latest reported revenues: None yet




Birthday: December 2010

Age: 29 months

Basic service cost: Free

Comms abilities: text, VoIP, group chat, desktop-to-desktop video calling, share photos/location

Special powers: stickers/emoji, desktop client

User-base: 200 million

Geographical reach:  193 countries/global

Stronghold: Monaco

Languages supported: 27

Latest reported revenues: None yet




Birthday: January 2011

Age: 28 months

Basic service cost: Free

Comms abilities: text, VoIP, HD video chatting, group chats, send audio/photos/location, walkie-talkie mode, live group chat

Special powers: emoji/stickers, photo wall, locate nearby/other WeChat users who are also looking to connect, leave audio messages for strangers to pick up, official accounts, desktop client, open API, gaming platform in the works

User-base: 300 million

Geographical reach: 30+ countries

Stronghold: China

Languages supported: 15

Latest reported revenues: None yet



Line stickers

Birthday: June 2011

Age: 23 months

Basic service cost: Free

Comms abilities: text, VoIP, group chat, social timeline, share photos/location/audio/video

Special powers: Kawaii characters with own cartoon show & merchandising, stickers, games, celebrity accounts, desktop client

User-base: 150 million registered users

Geographical reach: Global

Stronghold: Japan

Languages supported: 12

Latest reported revenues: $59m in Q1 2013


Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger

Birthday:  August 2011

Age: 21 months

Basic service cost: Free

Comms abilities: text, VoIP in select markets, send photos/audio

Special powers: stickers/emoji, Chat Heads (on Android), integration with desktop Facebook

User-base: Facebook does not break this out but estimated 60 million in November 2012

Geographical reach: Global

Languages supported: 22+

Stronghold: Unknown

Latest reported revenues: Not disclosed