World leader WhatsApp hotly pursued by innovative rivals from China and Russia
Facebook-owned WhatsApp is undoubtedly the world’s most popular messaging service and has been since at least 2014, when it could boast 600 million monthly active users. The corresponding figure today is 1.5 billion, over 50 percent more than its closest rival, WeChat, which had 963 million monthly active users at last count (see chart).
Apart from being the market leader, WhatsApp is also unique for the fact that it is one of the few big-name messengers which does not generate any revenue. The company has said on numerous occasions that working on ways to monetize the app, including charging businesses to use it, although details remain scarce.
For now, it seems that alongside its ownership of Instagram, Facebook is still using WhatsApp as a means to build its reach. Taken together, the three platforms “give [Facebook CEO] Zuckerberg a significant user base in just about every major country across the globe,” says Forbes technology journalist and industry commentator Gordon Kelly.
WeChat, meanwhile, founded one year after WhatsApp in 2010 by Chinese multinational Tencent, is itself deserving of close study, having also enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent years. The high monthly active user count it enjoys today is nearly double the figure of 500 million it recorded in 2014 and it is the number one messaging app in China (a country where the majority of Western alternatives, including all of those included in our chart above, are banned). Yet overall WeChat trails WhatsApp by about half a billion users, a difference which widened significantly in 2017 after several years where it remained steady at between 100 to 200 million users.
Industry observers predict, however, that WeChat will grow in popularity and geographic reach to the point where it will threaten not only messaging services but a range of other apps and social media platforms too. That’s down to the platform’s “app within an app” architecture which means it offers not just communications but can also handle things like credit card payments and booking an appointment with the doctor.
“Imagine WeChat as everyone having their own website that functions as their profile,” says FinTech expert Robin Kiera. “On the front end, other users who have your WeChat ID can see what you are posting. Then, on the backend of the webpage, you have the ability to access everything needed for your day to day life and the opportunity to make it public.”
According to Kiera, competitors like Facebook and Instagram have worked to expand their platforms’ capabilities but are still “light years away” from being able to offer the kinds of features available in WeChat.
Of the other messaging apps currently on the market meanwhile, each has its own unique selling point. Telegram, launched by Russian Pavel Durov in 2013, is rapidly gaining in popularity worldwide thanks to its cloud-based architecture and heavy encryption of user data. This latter feature has attracted the ire of several governments, not least of all in the authoritarian states of Russia and Iran where the app is on the brink of being banned outright.
Telegram courted further controversy through its Initial Coin Offering last month which raised $1.7 billion and attracted interest from a number of major Silicon Valley investors. Durov and his Dubai-based team say they will use the cash to build a blockchain-powered virtual economy which, according to their roadmap, could be up and running by mid-2019.
But critics of the messaging service, which has no revenue streams apart from the ICO, have dismissed the plans as undeliverable and overly ambitious. Justine and Olivia Moore, both venture capital investors at CRV, have raised concerns over the fact that Telegram has yet to clearly outline recruiting and product development milestones on the road to realizing its goals.
“We aren’t convinced that Telegram will deliver significant upside beyond the ICO valuation,” they write.
Others are more bullish, predicting that Telegram will become the new standard in an era where messaging apps are no longer about just connecting with friends and family.
“WeChat and other messengers have already proven that they are more than a means of communication,” Andrian Galkin, co-founder of blockchain startup Storiqa, told Forbes. “You can buy tickets, you can pay for stuff on them. This is a whole new era for instant messaging and Telegram is going to be the benchmark.”
If Telegram does manage to bring its goals to fruition, it remains to be seen if such futuristic additions to simple messaging will prove a hit with users. The rise of WeChat suggests there is a market for platforms which integrate communications with a host of other daily activities although that app’s success has so far been limited largely to China, where it reportedly enjoys cosy relations with the authorities in Beijing.
The other area which remains a store of huge potential for messaging apps is in their use by businesses. The number of enterprises which today use messengers to interact with their clients is relatively small but that is set to change according to Joshua March, an expert in social media-based customer service and author of the forthcoming book “Message Me”.
March stresses that companies need to understand how messaging, compared to other digital channels, is “a different communication paradigm” whose influence is only growing.
“The messaging platforms are already dominant in terms of both overall communication channels and application usage,” says the author. “These patterns are becoming more ingrained with each passing month, year, and generation.”
March believes the convenience of messaging apps and the fact that they enable organizations to answer consumer queries in real-time means they will likely replace phone calls and e-mails, something which “will have a massively positive impact on the customer experience.”
Still, regardless of any innovative features a messenger might incorporate or which businesses it partners with, it seems unlikely that a single one will ever dominate the market in the way that, for example, Google does with search. While they remain free, most users are likely to sign up to several services and use them for different purposes.
In other words, the landscape is diverse and it looks as though the messaging app wars have only just begun.