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Are Instant Messaging apps the future of mobile internet?

Prajyot Mainkar


Amongst its many uses and benefits, the internet has been responsible for transforming and simplifying how people communicate with others around the globe. Additionally, emails and instant messaging (IM) have been part of this revolution. From ICQ to AIM, GTalk to Facebook Chat, a lot over the internet makes our outreach easier and efficient. IM’s have been has been an evolving idea for a long time. And why shouldn’t it be. It’s not just about what we send today, but how efficiently and conveniently we send the content to people. But where did it all start?

Before the Internet became popular, a lot of people were already online. The then notable services like America Online (AOL), Prodigy and CompuServe were some of the options people chose to connect and communicate with each other online. Software developers designed chat-room software and set up this chat-room on web servers. This allowed groups of people to send messages among other members in the ‘room’ – a term which is now known as ‘group’. We then witnessed growth in IM’s like as ICQ (I Seek you) which was launched by an Israeli company Mirabilis and went on to be the first IM to really reach a widespread market of online users. It was after this that several players such as AOL launched AIM, Yahoo launched Yahoo Messenger joined the arena! In 1998 Pidgin, founded as Gaim, launched an open-source instant messaging client while Microsoft launched MSN messenger later in 1999. The rise of IM’s in the 1990s gave birth to shorthand languages. Remember the LOLs, ROFLs, BRBs TTYLs, TYs that we used?  Well we still use it! Don’t We?

Not only were IMs used on personal computers, they were popular on smartphones too. Back in 1992, a 22-year-old test engineer for Sema Group (now known as AirWide Solutions which was then acquired by Mavenir Systems in 2011), Neil Papworth sent the first text message on December 3. The text message read ‘Merry Christmas’ which he sent from his personal computer to the Vodafone network to the phone of Richard Jarvis. Richard Jarvis received the message on an Orbitel 901 handset. The first GSM carrier in US was set up by Omnipoint Communications which soon started offering messaging service between the US and the rest of the world, with the character limited of 160 characters.

Today, with the growth of smartphones, the apps have become more useful for us to send data to our friends, families and whosoever. A mobile implies real-time while IMs make it possible for you to be real-time connected with the person in communication with. In a survey conducted by Pew Research in US, roughly three-in-ten online adults, 29 per cent and 36 per cent smartphone owners use messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or iMessage. The survey showed that 49 per cent smartphone users between the ages of 18 to 29 use messaging apps. But as you know, IMs have become a ‘no age limit’ thing. Around 37 per cent smartphone owners aged 30 to 49 and 24 per cent of those who are age 50 and above use IM apps. Does it hint that SMS’s are going off the track?

The answer lies significantly in the usage pattern. Like SMS text, the core feature of virtually all the leading IM apps is based on text however, they do it without using SMS Data. Some popular IMs provide additional features and services entitling them as next-gen SMS and Text+ apps. With many players like WhatsApp, Kik, WeChat, Viber and many more already in business, the IM arena has become bit of a space race. Millions of dollars are at stake while most of these leading IM creators are looking to improvise with an aim of creating an all-in-one app. The key to the success of these apps lies more in what they have to offer than just IMs.

Take the case of WeChat (launched in January 2011) which is popular in China. Today the service has 1.1 Billion users. But it offers more than just IMs. It allows the user to post photos, play games, make voice calls, order food, transfer money (Wallet), hire taxis (Easy Taxi) and much more. So with the power of the internet, IMs have started becoming more intuitive on the needs of users.

While IM apps have been free to download, many of the IM companies like KIK have been experimenting different ways to monetise the app, especially tapping the massive user base using their app. They’ve been exploring in-app advertisements such as banner ads, promoted chats, a ‘brand following target’ approach based on gender, geography and mobile device, and editorial placements as a monetising approach. It appears that IMs might enter the marketing bandwagon soon enough.

But does it mean that SMS’s are dead? Not yet. SMS’s are available as long as you have a mobile phone and service plan. The technology for sending and receiving SMS is not dependent on the internet, making it more society reachable, irrespective of whether you use a smartphone or a regular mobile device. The dominance of SMS’s is clearly seen over IMs in the case of application-to-person (A2P) SMS. The typical use cases include- payment confirmations, air/rail/bus ticket confirmations, appointment reminders, account updates from banks, etc. One must not forget another use case of the two-factor authentication (2-FA) while signing into your email accounts. This additional layer of security has been the go-to method by which companies protect their users.

One thing is for certain- while the most populous demographic on the planet uses IMs, SMS’s are not yet done with. Even if many (and they do) chose to embrace IMs and even think SMS an antiquated technology, the fact remains true that the A2P and 2-FA benefits are still trusted on SMS and will remain so, until alternatives arrive.


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