[The mobile space is about to be shaken up again. Get ready for the second tidal wave of mobile ecosystems to reshuffle the market. These powerful new ecosystems are mobile-first and twice over-the-top (OTT²): they are built on top of telco services and on top of app platforms.]
It’s 2014. We’re 6 years into the smartphone revolution, and the mobile space is starting to settle down. iOS and Android are clearly in the lead among app platforms – their ecosystem strategy has created a natural duopoly in which competing platforms no longer stand a chance. Smartphone innovation is no longer radical, but mostly incremental. There are signs that smartphone users are becoming overserved by the latest and greatest flagship devices: smartphones are becoming “good enough” as such and undifferentiated for mainstream users.
But things are about to be shaken up again. [tweetable]A second tidal wave of mobile ecosystems is gaining strength, ready to thoroughly reshuffle the mobile market once more[/tweetable].
These powerful new ecosystems are mobile-first and twice over-the-top (OTT²): they are built on top of telco services and on top of app platforms. I’m talking about messaging apps of course: WhatsApp, Line, WeChat/Weixin, Viber, Telegram, KakaoTalk, Kik.
[tweetable]Messaging apps are proving to be so much more powerful than just chat[/tweetable]. Even well established social networks and ecommerce giants are getting nervous enough to make high-value surprise acquisitions (we’ll talk about Facebook in a moment).
The first indicator of their momentum is the sheer size of their user bases. Tango, considered to be a smaller player, has 200M registered users and 70M monthly active users (MAU). Wechat has passed 350M MAU, WhatsApp has over 450M MAU. Chat apps don’t just get downloaded often, but they are incredibly engaging. A large share of engagement minutes is going to staying connected with friends, family and business partners, and chat apps are increasingly the way to do so. Chat messages overtook SMS in global message volume in April 2013. In essence, the rise of messaging apps relegated telcos as a group to the status of just another communication ecosystem.
Investors agree when it comes to their value, if we can believe the recent M&A, IPO and investment activity.
WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19B
Viber was acquired by Japanese e-commerce player Rakuten for $900M in cash
Tango received a $280M series D investment, including $215M from China’s e-commerce king Alibaba
Line is rumoured to prepare for a $28B IPO
KakaoTalk is also preparing for an IPO, aiming at a $2B valuation
[tweetable]Messaging apps are important because they build on asymmetric business models, the same economics that brought Apple and Android to their dominance[/tweetable]. They are subsidizing or commoditizing hardware, apps and services to grab users and boost their core business. The first examples of this are already evident.
Messaging apps are of course commoditizing the quintessential telco services: voice and texting. Whatsapp announced a VoIP play. Even large operators in emerging markets with incomplete mobile penetration like China Mobile are reporting financial performance challenges, citing competition from chat apps as the reason.
Tencent (known from the wildly popular instant messenger QQ and chat app WeChat) and Alibaba (China’s e-commerce champion) are fighting their battle for user acquisition and engagement in the most unexpected of places: taxis. Not only have Tencent and Alibaba both invested in taxi hailing apps (DiDi and Kuaidi respectively), they are both actively subsidizing taxi rides by giving discounts if users use their apps. The mini price war is so intense that in some cases, users actually get paid when taking a taxi.
Apps like Line and Tango are taking a page from iOS and Android’s playbook, using game developers and content providers to add value to their platforms.
With this “user landgrab” and high engagement, messaging apps are competing with the telco services and app platforms on which they are built, who are trying to achieve the same reach and share of attention. [tweetable]While most apps are just value-adds for iOS and Android, messaging apps are the first that can create a substantially new mobile landscape[/tweetable].
So what is the core business of chat apps that is being boosted? We’ll discuss the surprising dominant revenue model of social apps in part 2 of this post. Stay tuned!