Breaking News Emails
While you were looking elsewhere, text messaging started to get a lot more interesting.
Far from just being a way to communicate short blips of information via your phone, messaging apps are becoming platforms for things like full-blown content sharing and even spending money.
Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp — and its announcement on April 9 that it is migrating all of its messaging services to a stand-alone app — are efforts to profit from this trend, analysts said.
While Facebook's Messenger and WhatsApp have focused on emulating SMS texting, the more than 100 mobile messaging services available today offer many features, from video calling to subscription accounts for celebrity news.
Here are three ways some message apps are being remade.
Julie Ask, an analyst with the tech research firm Forrester, sees increased personal-content sharing as part of a larger commercial plan for developers. "They don't want to be just a messaging app, but a platform for third parties to build apps on," she said.
One app, the California-based Tango, launched in 2010, lets users share photos and videos and make voice and video calls. A recent partnership with the music-streaming service Spotify also allows direct song sharing between app contacts.
Another, the Canada-based messaging app Kik, takes another spin on content sharing with a built-in browser.
"Using Kik's browser, users can instantly share both websites and the content from those sites," founder and CEO Ted Livingston said. "Sharing between users happens with one click—and when someone receives content, they can open and enjoy it in one click as well without ever leaving Kik."
Some companies have started to use messaging apps as a novel means of communication. BBC News, for example, announced on April 4 that it is using WhatsApp and the similar Chinese app WeChat to provide breaking news updates on the upcoming India election.
WeChat has also facilitated at least one real estate deal. In March, Douglas Elliman broker Emma Hao used the service to strike a Manhattan luxury real estate deal of $13.3 million. A client she had met in China contacted her directly through the app, and The Real Deal said that the entire negotiation happened through a mobile group chat with Hao, including the buyer, the buyer's attorney and bankers.
Many apps are working to build their platforms by offering games. In addition to letting all users of the messaging app play together easily, Tango's CTO and co-founder Eric Setton said focusing on one channel is beneficial to developers.
"It's very competitive to distribute on mobile today," he said. "Tango takes care of the distribution. [There's] one distribution, free of outside fees."
Through a partnership with PlayPhone, Tango also streamlines the payment process. Although most apps focus on linking credit cards with the device, PlayPhone lets Tango users pay for games and other purchases through their monthly phone-carrier bill. Countries outside the United States already offer similar mobile carrier-based payment systems.
"Commerce is one of the next big frontiers," Forrester's Ask said.
Stores such as Starbucks and Burger King already let customers use smartphones to pay, while Ask said she used WeChat to buy takeout in China. Other developments she said to watch for include subscribing to deals via messaging. (Facebook is also likely to get into financial services.)
Brian Blau, consumer technology analyst with Gartner, said that most people aren't used to shopping via social messaging apps at this point. That behavior, however, could change.
"I think there's a long way to go before the technology community embraces one mobile e-commerce solution," Blau said. "But once that happens, social messaging apps and, together, social networking apps are going to be front and center."
The overlooked phenomenon
With the ever-increasing features of WeChat, the popular Japan service Line and Korea's KakaoTalk, Asia is immersed in a messaging-app culture to a much greater extent than the West. Forrester studies show that 54 percent of online adults in metropolitan China alone use mobile messaging apps at least daily, as opposed to 22 percent in the U.S. Two of the apps are doing so well that they are planning IPOs.
The Wall Street Journal reported in February that Korean messaging app KakaoTalk was in financing talks with Morgan Stanley and Samsung Securities for an initial public offering as high as $2 billion. Last fall, Reuters reported that Japan's Line may also go public later this year, with a possible valuation of $10 billion.
But Blau thinks that acquisitions rather than IPOs are more likely for most messaging apps, at least in the West.
"They really have to have a large and sustainable business for Wall Street to buy into it," he said. "For an IPO, you have to show revenue."
As the Asian apps have built large platforms that bring users together through multiple communication media, Facebook may be approaching the same goal by streamlining its mobile interface, analysts said.