The Concerns With Modern Mobile Messaging Apps

You will agree with me when I say that messaging is increasingly getting fragmented across India and the world due to the rise of newer and better messaging platforms. A field previously dominated by BBM and the somewhat recent Whatsapp, it is now an active battleground for new South Asian apps vying to expand beyond their home territories. Apps like WeChat, Line etc. have been aggressively pushing their services in traditional Indian marketing mediums in order to see a rise in traction and adoption.

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The equation in India was pretty simple some years back when IM messaging on the mobile phone was restricted to the slightly elitist and corporate kinda crowd. This has gradually changed because of the rise of affordable smartphones which can run messaging apps. Android has been the biggest driver of this trend and it is the primary reason why so many people now are messaging using their phones. This has of course, killed the highly lucrative (for carriers) avenue for network operators and those guys are struggling to make sense of this revolution which has left them so far behind. While the overall progress has been good when it comes to allowing people to connect with each other by breaking various barriers (cost, accessibility, mobile Internet etc.), there is rising problem which if unchecked, in my opinion, can put spikes in the wheel of the progress achieved so far.

Thus we come back to the problem of fragmentation. This is a serious issue because as more messaging apps are born and with excellent features to boot, they are forming small close knit ecosystems which are not designed to play well with other messaging ecosystems. The first problem that arises is the shameless copying of innovative features. Since messaging is such a precious market for companies vying in the space, the competition to lure users is immense, which inadvertently results in major players copying each other’s unique features. While the ethics of copying features can be debated, the fact remains that all apps now have the same functionality with very little differentiation. The only criteria for users to choose a messaging app will be because of how many people in their immediate network use it and not because they like it personally. Although this may not seem like much, it is very important for there to be personal choice in the apps you use. The removal  of choice (not intentional) in a highly connected world is not a great way to have a good ecosystem.

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The only solution in my mind is to setup a mobile messaging standard, similar to XMPP, which is federated (messaging between users from different platforms). I think that the early IM companies got it right by establishing the XMPP standard which was open and could be implemented by anyone. Something like that needs to happen to mobile messaging. Ideally the XMPP could be extended to cover mobile messaging but it has been steadily been discarded by modern companies and startups, who instead choose to make their own proprietary protocols for their apps. I am not faulting anyone here and I understand that the XMPP standard has issues. Google cited the same when it dumped XMPP in favor of its own IM protocol in the new Hangouts. A new mobile messaging standard will work because it will take care of setting up a common platform. New apps and companies can build on the existing platform and implement new features for their app while still allowing people from say a Whatsapp to communicate with their friends on WeChat. I know this sounds simple but there is going to be quite a bit of complexity that will have to solved to make this implementable, but it will at least save the growing fragmentation and the creation of messaging silos across markets and continents.

There is hope as far as monetization is concerned, seeing how companies like Line and WeChat are monetizing their offerings by way of in-app purchases of stickers and other stuff. This may have worked well in other Asian markets like Japan, Korea and China, but the Indian market is fundamentally different. Will we buy stickers, or pay for the games we play? I don’t know the answer to that and we have to see how apps like WeChat, Line and Hike pick up in the country. Whatsapp is still very strong among Indians because of the early penetration into India and the pricing. Except for iOS, the app was free for one year for everyone else. Today, Whatsapp has gone freemium on iOS too!

The state of mobile messaging reminds me of the browser wars which had a similar problem with competing standards. I hope the industry players can come together and work out a common solution, so that we can use the messaging apps that we like without having to think about what other platform our friends and connections are on.

What do you think? We would love to hear your views. Share them with us in the comments.

Top Image Source | Economic Times

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