It's not uncommon for smartphone users to switch between a handful of apps within just a few minutes to message with different friends, family and colleagues. However, that doesn't mean people prefer this scattered sort of communication. Rather, it's just the way things are, at least for now.
During the past few years, traditional IM services, such as AIM, and even the most common short messaging format of all, SMS text, have fallen out of favor because services including Snapchat and Facebook's Messenger deliver more powerful frameworks for rich media and more enjoyable experiences.
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Today, more than 2.1 billion people use a social messaging app such as WhatsApp or WeChat, according to Portio Research. In the United States, 29 percent of adults with Internet access and 36 percent of smartphone owners use at least one messaging app, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.
"Among smartphone owners ages 18 to 29, 49 percent use messaging apps," wrote Maeve Duggan, research analyst at Pew, in the report. "However, these apps are relatively popular with older smartphone owners as well: 37 percent of smartphone owners age 30 to 49, and 24 percent of those ages 50 and older, use mobile messaging apps."
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The rapid ascent of this new wave of messaging apps reflects the extent to which various communications tools serve different social needs, according to Duggan. "These tools add to an already complex and varied terrain of online and mobile interaction."
Facebook owns the two biggest platforms in the global messaging market: WhatsApp has than 900 million monthly active users (MAUs); and Messenger, with 700 million MAUs. WeChat, which is predominantly used in China, ranks third with more than 600 million MAUs.
WhatsApp delivered more than seven trillion messages in 2014, the equivalent to about 1,000 messages for every person on the planet. Facebook paid $21.8 billion for the service, which now transfers at least 50 percent more messages than the entire global SMS system.
"WhatsApp is still very independent. [Its] goal is really to have a lot of breadth and work on all the devices across all countries," said David Marcus, Facebook's vice president of messaging products, at the Code/Mobile conference earlier this month. "Our goal [at Messenger] is actually to really win in different types of markets, so we have different markets we're separately winning in."
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Marcus points to the rise of WeChat and other messaging apps in Asia as an indicator of shifting momentum. "I don't think we can replicate what has happened there, we must leapfrog it, but it's really promising," Marcus said. "I think the tolerance for lower quality types of experiences, very commercial types of services is much lower here, and as a result we need to approach it differently."
By elevating Messenger to a standalone platform for developers and retailers to build on, Facebook is trying to co-opt the next Snapchat, according to Benedict Evans, partner with Andreessen Horowitz. "The smartphone is a social platform that makes it easy to use multiple social apps, but you still have to get someone over the hurdle of installing the app in the first place, and they have to get all of their friends to install it too so that they have someone to send to," Evans wrote in a related blog post.
Facebook wants to avoid buying popular messaging companies, so it is incorporating various forms of communication into Messenger instead, according to Evans. He calls the strategy a "great jujitsu move," because while Facebook has removed a major barrier to growth, it still "owns" the users.
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For now, though, plenty of overlap exists as users tap in and out of different apps to accomplish similar tasks. Snapchat for example, which previously reported more than 100 million daily users but is rumored to be closer to 200 million today, has significant cross-app appeal with its users, according to market research firm GlobalWebIndex. More specifically, 72 percent of Snapchat users are also active on Facebook Messenger; 54 percent actively use WhatsApp; and 51 percent are active on Skype.
"Evidently, we need to reject the notion that people tend to use one app only; to the contrary, they are happy to operate across a wide range of them," writes Jason Mander, GlobalWebIndex's head of trends. "In some cases, users are actually active on around five different chat apps. Fostering a sense of loyalty among such audiences is thus a major challenge."
The rise and unparalleled popularity of non-native messaging apps means most users no longer feel a sense of loyalty to traditional purveyors of real-time communications, such as IM providers and perhaps wireless carriers, who provide SMS functionality over their networks. Facebook, Snapchat and others have usurped control from legacy players, and they encourage a more direct and unencumbered approach to messaging.
These apps, which are often free, have circumvented an entire business model. Now that they enjoy massive audiences, it's time for their makers to convert users into customers, but it remains to be seen how associated for-pay offerings will be received in the market.