WhatsApp sails past SMS, but where does messaging go next?

Noted this week: WhatsApp reported that it now has 700m MAUs sending 30bn messages a day. For comparison, the global SMS system sees about 20bn messages a day. 

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Meanwhile these charts of global SMS use from Ofcom show the other side of the story: arbitrage and substitution.

As I discussed when Facebook bought WhatsApp last year, the smartphone itself is a social platform. The winner-takes-all dynamics of social on the desktop web do not appear to apply on mobile, and if there are winner-takes-all dynamics for mobile social it’s not yet clear what they are. There are four main aspects to this: 

  • Smartphone apps can access your address book, bypassing the need to rebuild your social graph on a new service
  • They can access your photo library, where uploading photos to different websites is a pain
  • They can use push notifications instead of relying on emails and on people bothering to check multiple websites
  • Crucially, they all get an icon on the home screen. 

Any smartphone app is just two taps away – a desktop site can crush a new competitor by adding it as a feature with a new menubar icon but on mobile there isn’t room to do that: mobile tends to favor single-purpose, specialized apps. These factors led to an explosion of social messaging apps in the past few years. 

It seems to me that there are two interesting questions now: how much these will settle down, and how much they will become more than just messaging. But actually, those are two sides of the same question. 

First, settling down. It does seem as though WhatsApp is far ahead outside the USA and east and south-east Asia. In the USA there’s Facebook Messenger, Kik, Snapchat and arguably Instagram still fighting it out, in East Asia Line and WeChat and maybe others are contenders (and WeChat is very far ahead in China), and Facebook Messenger is a global presence too. It’s all pretty unclear how much and where, exactly, and the numbers are very fuzzy – some give almost-meaningless ‘registered’ users and some give MAUs, and MAU is also not terribly meaningful – ‘Hourly Active Users’ might be better. Meanwhile Apple’s iMessage is dark matter – it’s probably big, with over 400m iPhones in use today, but we don’t know how big.

But talking about winners per se also seems like it may be the wrong conversation – people use several of these at once for different purposes. WhatsApp may win ‘text chat’ but that’s not quite what Instagram is about. After all, your smartphone comes with three social networks out of the box, voice, SMS and email, and you use them all. Are you really going to add only one more? So something else may displace WhatsApp the UK or India for text chat, but it’s more likely that there will be more Snapchats that carve out a slice of time by doing something different.

That is, we are still exploring what kinds of communications and sharing you can do with a platform that’s a lot more sophisticated than the desktop internet model of web browser + mouse + keyboard. A lot of this is about innovation in behaviour and psychology – social science, not computer science. Hence Snapchat, Secret or Yik Yak (or before them the Facebook News Feed itself) are about finding new behaviours, not new technology. In a sense this is a branch of media, not technology, and there may never be just one answer. I suspect voice will also be an area for innovation. 

The next phase of this is how far messaging becomes more than just P2P comms and expands to become a new aggregation layer. Facebook on the desktop is a huge source of traffic, and WeChat in China is again a platform (as are Line, Kakao and Kik). APIs and a one-to-many follow model let you break out of sending little snippets of text or pictures to each other and turn messages and chat threads themselves into software (this is also happening to push notifications). In China, things that in Europe or the USA would be stand-alone apps are (also) embedded functions within chat or maps apps from the major portals. I rather suspect that Facebook has something similar in mind for Messenger – I doubt David Marcus joined to add stickers. (Ironically, WhatsApp, the largest messaging app, has the fewest platform elements.) This remains very early – one can argue that the platform model worked for Wechat, Line and maybe Kakao because they’re more innovative (which they certainly are), or because they benefited from the absence or weakness of Facebook (and Google) in their home markets. That is, they fill the same purpose as Facebook in a different way. The Great Firewall in particular acts as a sort of No Fly Zone for some kinds of innovation. 

The deeper issue here is that the whole interaction model for smartphones is deeply unsettled. With smartphones we’ve moved away from the unifying model of the web browser plus Google, but haven’t reached stability in a new model – everything is still changing, including the questions. We don’t really know what it will mean to ‘find’, ‘discover’ and ‘install’ an ‘app’ in a few years.