The Messaging App Wars Are Just Getting Started

02.26.14 In the News

By: Nick Bilton | February 26, 2014 (Featured on Bits blog by The New York Times)

There are 24 different ways for me to message someone from my phone right now. All for no additional charge beyond my existing cellphone bill.

I can pick from iMessages, Snapchat, Instagram Direct, Twitter direct messages, WhatsApp, Telegram, Confide, AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook Messenger, Wut, GroupMe, Line, Viber, MessageMe, Kik Messenger, Popcorn, Glide, Tango, ooVoo, Shots, Skype, Whisper, TigerText and even my email account.

It’s slightly overwhelming just thinking about which one to use. I can use Facebook to set up a group chat, or Confide to write a secret message, or Twitter because it’s easy, or Line if I want to include some stickers … I’m sorry, my head is already spinning, I have to sit down.

While it might be messaging app overload for customers, the makers of these apps see an opportunity to disrupt the phone companies and become the go-to communication platform for people on their smartphones.

For consumers, the opportunity to send free messages — don’t forget, we were once charged per text by AT&T and Verizon — is still a pretty big draw. But there is quickly going to come a time when this list of apps becomes a burden rather than a luxury.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, obviously believes consumers are going to pick WhatsApp as their go-to messaging app. Why else would he plunk down up to $19 billion for the app last week?

These big acquisitions in the past have been very beneficial to both the acquirer and the acquired. YouTube became the Internet’s main video platform after Google purchased it. And Instagram has skyrocketed in popularity after Facebook paid $1 billion for the service in 2012.

But some believe it is too early to predict which messaging apps will survive the messaging wars.

“This is all part of the future of cloud-based Internet computing and right now everyone is in a land grab where the more people you have on your service, the better off you are,” said Glen Allmendinger, president of Harbor Research, an Internet consulting and research firm. “But we still don’t know which apps are going to be the winners in the end and it’s all a big gamble.”

Mr. Allmendinger noted that while WhatsApp might seem like a deal to Facebook at $19 billion, another service could easily come along soon that would become the next WhatsApp. “It’s like the blind leading the vision-impaired,” he said. “No one knows what the future holds.”

As Mat Honan noted in Wired, the international use of these apps is a huge concern for Facebook as messaging has proven even more popular in the developing world. “These new Internet users will probably come online for the first time on mobile devices, and it won’t be surprising if they bypass traditional social networks altogether,” Mr. Honan wrote.

While consumers at home and abroad are clearly overwhelmed by the numerous options now available to message people, it is also apparent that smartphone users are still somewhat fickle about where they will choose to connect with friends in the future.

According to Bloomberg, since Facebook acquired WhatsApp, a competing secure messaging app called Telegram is seeing as many as five million people sign up each day. By comparison, WhatsApp is estimated to be growing at around one million new users a day.

Of course downloads do not equal revenue. No matter how many people download these messaging platforms, it’s still unclear how people will monetize them.

Marcus Nelson, the former head of social media at Salesforce.com and current chief executive of Addvocate, a social sharing platform for people at work, said in an email that it was completely unclear how WhatsApp monetizes without advertising.

“We don’t know how many of its 450 million users are net new to Facebook, or how Facebook can convert those users into recurring revenue,” Mr. Nelson said. “Assuming all 450 million WhatsApp users pay $1 a year, it could break even in about 40 years. By that time, Mark Zuckerberg should have outgrown his hoodie.”

While we don’t know what the future will hold with any of these questions, we do know that there will be a lot more competition in this space until there’s a victor.