Facebook's new Android integration, Home, groups Instagram, maps, email, and other apps in one drawer. Its main screen has just three navigation options: "Apps," "Last App," and—the exceptional stand-alone app in the mix—"Messenger."
Why has Facebook given such special treatment to a once tangential feature of its service?
Here's a theory: “I think everyone is realizing that messaging is the killer app in mobile,” says Ted Livingston, the creator of a messaging app called Kik. "Now it’s just who can wrap a platform around it the fastest."
Kik, which last reported having 40 million registered users, is adding about 100,000 new users each day. Its main competitor in the United States, WhatsApp, has been downloaded more than 100 million times from the Google Play store and is currently the top paid app in the App Store. Rumors surfaced this week that it was in acquisition talks with Google (WhatsApp has denied this). Meanwhile, similar apps such as Line, WeChat, and KakaoTalk hold prominent positions in overseas App Stores.
But it's not just the popularity of these apps that has Facebook and just about every other established digital player investing in mobile messaging. It’s the possibility that these apps, once seen as merely a cheaper alternative to texting, will become the most successful mobile services. Here’s why:
Texting is replacing calling as a phone's main utility. And teenagers, arguably the most important group of mobile users for services such as Facebook, are leading that transition.
A recent Pew Internet study found that more teenagers use text messaging (63%) than any other form of communication, including phone calls (39%), face-to-face socializing (35%), and social network site messaging (29%). Another study by U.K. communications regulator Ofcom echoed those results. It found that while 90% of 16- to 24-year-olds used text messaging on a daily basis, only 67% made mobile phone calls and only 73% used a social networking service at the same rate. The stereotypical teenager who spends hours talking on the phone has been replaced by one who sends 3,339 text messages per month. And that makes messaging apps, which don't charge per message the way text messages do, the best way to reach them.
By one count, the average Facebook user has 254 friends. But how many people have you texted this week?
Probably not so many.
Like Path's intimate social network, messaging apps cater to interactions between a core group of connections. So, the theory goes, users are likely to interact with them frequently. WhatsApp said in January that it had processed a record 18 billion messages in a single day. “Those are the people you’re talking to every day," Livingston says, "That’s the app you’re using 100 times a day.”
Time spent with any mobile messaging app still isn't worth talking about when compared to time spent on Facebook's apps, but it's a category of interaction that no one platform currently owns—and that makes it an opportunity.
Mobile messaging apps, like social networks, allow users to share their photos, videos, and locations. But there’s potential to do more than exchange content.
Some of the most feasible business models for mobile messaging depend on developing applications that run inside of them. Messaging apps have experimented with advertising, e-commerce, virtual goods such as stickers and, in the case of WhatsApp, charging for downloads. Inserting third-party experiences helps all of these efforts.
Kik, for instance, introduced “cards” last year that enable web-based applications such as YouTube viewing, collaborative sketching, and a puzzle game. Though its offerings are still limited and contain nothing for sale, the company hopes to eventually take a cut of in-app purchases. KakaoTalk has progressed much further along the same path. In Korea, 13 of 20 free games in the App Store run within it. That means its users leave the messaging app, download the game from the App Store, and log back into KakaoTalk to play it.
"We own your 5 to 10 closest friends," argues Livingston. "Around that we can build apps, games, photosharing—[social networks] let you do all these things with the next 490 most important people in your life.
It should be no surprise that the threat of dominating mobile users' closest relationships have made messaging apps hot acquisition targets. Before talks of Google acquiring WhatsApp, there were talks of Facebook acquiring WhatsApp. Before that, Skype acquired messaging app GroupMe and Facebook acquired messaging startup Beluga. Livingston says Kik has also had acquisition interest.
“I don’t think any amount of money could replace the fun we’re having right now,” he says."We are on one of these waves that come by once every 10 years."
“But," he adds as an absent-minded afterthought, "who knows.”
Update: Kik announced Thursday that it has been adding about 200,000 new users per week and recently surpassed 50 million registered users. The service is now processing about 2 billion messages each week.
[Talk Bubbles Image: Brian A Jackson via Shutterstock]