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The Monumental Rise Of Over The Top Messaging Apps

Photo courtesy of Maurizio Pesce via Flickr

“In the good old days,” says your Grandmother, “all we had to communicate with was a pen and paper — or if you were lucky, a hunk of metal attached to the wall.”

No longer, Grandma. Conversing with friends and family over a distance has become so diversified, one can now communicate instantly by video, GIF, text, or photo; through phone, computer, or tablet; internationally, publicly, or anonymously. Just take your pick.

OTT vs SMS

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”83er8dVZUqeIVdpNpiITf9hlGhnQCDl5″]The plethora available options typically come in the form of over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps: mobile applications that deliver content over the Internet via a third party instead of through mobile network operators.

Such apps are a fast growing alternative to SMS texting, which, though not typically expensive in the U.S., can be costly in other countries. OTT messages are forecasted to reach 37.8 trillion messages sent in 2018.

Already, WhatsApp alone handles 30 billion messages a day, compared to SMS’ 20 billion. Volume-wise, OTT messages more than doubled SMS ones in 2014 — and yet, OTTs make only about 2 percent of what traditional texting does. That’s because mobile messaging services are mostly free, and many global consumers don’t have smartphones yet.

Mobile messaging, still, is booming. Some such apps make money by incorporating games, advertising, business and media services; others thrive off of potential acquisitions and VC funding.

The trends

The overwhelming variety of messaging apps available are criticized by some for being disjointed and confusing. But the element of choice is appealing, too — users can pick and choose what apps to use for certain types of communication, with certain types of people, without being forced into an existing mode.

Some trends that users have to choose from are:

  • International: Apps like WeChat, Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp (the latter now owned by Facebook) replace SMS texting with free text and chat, across borders.
  • Anonymous: Apps like Yik Yak, Whisper, among others are popularizing anonymous communications, whether for privacy reasons or just for fun.
  • Dating: Tinder and apps like it allow communication — and exploration — expressly in the realm of modern dating.
  • Disappearing: The explosion of SnapChat popularized the fad of disappearing message apps, including Cyber Dust (for texts), Sobrr (for video and voice) along with SnapChat copycats by Facebook and Instagram.
  • Video Streaming: Just days after video streaming app MeerKat won hearts and investment money at SXSW, Twitter launched its own, which similarly allows users to live stream video via tweet.
  • Local: Apps like Tinder, Yik Yak, FireChat, Popcorn and others foster communication with people near you.
  • Multimedia: To add extra value, apps that offer communication by GIF, custom emojis, selfie templates and more are gaining speed for their niche visual offerings

Winner takes all

Luckily, message apps aren’t mutually exclusive. But that doesn’t mean some aren’t hoping to get a bigger piece of the pie.

Geographically, messaging apps are fragmented by country and continent.

Since Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, it seems their leading position is for the most part, stable. They still don’t monopolize Western mobile web experience, though — not like China’s WeChat, anyway.

But it’s the Asian model that Facebook seemingly would like to imitate. WeChat, called Weixen in China, is essentially China’s entire mobile Internet, which is open for any third party company to build off of by contributing their own Weixen-optimized sites.

Facebook is now moving to turn Messenger into a similar experience. By opening it up to third party developers, Messenger is becoming more than an app, but a diverse platform. Already, 39 free apps can be installed directly from Messenger, most of which spice up chats with videos, sound clips, GIFS, stickers and more.

What’s next?

OTT messaging is not set to replace SMS yet, because no messaging app is universal enough. Facebook may be eying up the messaging app market, but it’s still anyone’s (or more likely, everyone’s) game.

With new apps offering attractive features not available through texting, the shift to OTT is forecasted to grow exponentially, especially as more people gain Internet access and acquire smartphones globally.

If one app were to emerge victorious in the West and even elsewhere, a la WeChat, analysts believe the next step will be integrating services more crucial than selfies and stickers.

Jennifer Markert