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The Rise and Fall of Messaging Apps

David Lumb Writer

Why do certain messaging apps entice the masses while others fail miserably?

The number of ways a smartphone user can contact a friend, from a simple SMS to a public tweet or comment on their Instagram photo, is staggering.

While the number of available options compose a sizable list, most people depend on a finite number of apps and services. The tech landscape is littered with the carcasses of never-successful messaging solutions — and some once-popular solutions that each lost their grip.

A select few, however, continue to entice the masses.

Today’s messaging kingpins are the China-based WeChat (550 million registered users), the Facebook-owned WhatsApp (800 million users), Facebook Messenger (700 million users), the Japan-based Line (210 million users), and the Israel-based Viber (250 million users).

All of these messaging platforms share the same core features: text and voice chat, photo sharing and location data. So what makes these platforms success stories and others abject failures?

“In the case of WhatsApp and WeChat, I think it’s eyeballs. It’s going to Metcalfe’s Law where the more people or nodes at the end of a network, the more valuable that network is,” said Bryan Rhoads, social media strategist at Intel, who has been with the company for 15 years, closely following the evolution of chat communication.

“But that’s the $5 billion question: Once you have that audience, what do you do with them?”

Rhoads’ first position in 1996 was to build Intel’s inaugural consumer-facing chat forum, which they called The Palace. Rhoads and his coworkers designed The Palace with avatars and balloon bubbles, which naturally endeared it to a younger crowd.

“The reason Intel liked [The Palace] was because it was a different capability for the Internet. It really was one of the first ‘social media,’” said Rhoads. “But The Palace was a little bit too much fun, and it was really dominated by teenagers.”

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For the same reason, The Palace didn’t appeal to enterprise clients when Intel tried to present it as a chat support solution within businesses.

In 1997, AOL released the messaging app that would reign from the late 90s until the mid-2000s. It’s difficult to discuss the origins of consumer-facing Internet messaging without tripping over AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).

“Some people say that with AOL, the AIM chatrooms are really what made AOL take off. It wasn’t only the easy access but the sense of community you got when you signed up for that service,” says Rhoads. “I think my dad is still on AOL.”

According to an interview with three programmers who worked on AIM in its early days, most of the features pioneered by AIM were developed out of necessity. For instance, users could manually check via screen name whether another user was online, but the volume of requests crashed AOL’s servers. They built the Buddy List to show which screen names a user knew were online.

Unable to convert AIM into a subscription service, AOL couldn’t figure out how to make any money on the popular service. Inevitably, AIM’s features lagged behind rival services — especially as social media networks emerged in the mid-2000s, each with its own growing internal chat feature.

“The lesson is that it’s probably easier to lose your audience than turn it into some kind of revenue model,” said Rhoads. “Our online worlds, our tastes and generational shifts all moved to Facebook. There were so many more features.”

Facebook recognized another thing AOL didn’t: having a huge user base is an equally huge opportunity to test and refine your messaging. Facebook has aggressively taken advantage of its user base to develop a supplementary instant messenger feature into the Messenger app.

This app currently dominates messaging in the U.S., but far before Facebook launched its Chat feature in 2008 (the desktop precursor to the Messenger app), RIM released BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) for its BlackBerry phones in 2005.

BBM is a proprietary messenger that was arguably the first big non-SMS messenger service on mobile platforms, and while BlackBerry phones fell to a fraction of their usage, BBM launched on iOS and Android in 2013 and is gaining users.

Where other instant messenger services failed, BBM clung to life as Blackberry phones managed to stay afloat with enterprise contracts. The company did this long enough for BBM to see new life on the current smartphone platforms of choice.

In other words, BlackBerry’s business sales kept BBM alive and in users’ hands.

Deep pockets have also funded other popular instant messengers like the mobile chat app WeChat, which started as an experimental project from Chinese tech titan TenCent. The company also built the legacy instant messenger QQ — another mobile instant messenger app success with 830 million active users.

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But what about the miracle apps that rose from obscurity? What made WhatsApp so special?

Not being tied to a huge corporation, probably. WhatsApp wasn’t the first to figure out that sending data across the world was far cheaper than sending an SMS, but WhatsApp wasn’t restricted to certain phones (like BBM until 2013 or iMessage still is today) or built into a busy Facebook interface.

WhatsApp was a clean chat option with no advertisements and, best of all, it was (and still is) cheap. Users get one year free. After that, they pay $0.99 per year, and each message only costs the data transmitted over the user’s carrier (or free over Wi-Fi). After gaining millions of users, WhatsApp’s popularity prompted Facebook to buy the messaging service for a $19 billion in 2014.

This begs the question: What will tomorrow’s top messaging apps look like? It really depends on who produces new, attractive ways to communicate, even — or perhaps especially — counterintuitive communication methods.

Snapchat, for instance, sends ephemeral messages. This communication method is popular because it flies in the face of traditional, permanent messaging. The app created a niche for itself, a new category of lightweight message that users wouldn’t have to stress over sending.

“The obvious thing as you go around the world is the fact that pretty much everybody on the planet has a device that they hold one-and-a-half feet in front of their face,” said Rhoads, who believes the future of chat involves context.

“When you put together all the data points from where a person is to the time of day, their schedule and their habits, I really think that’s what’s next: Smarter and smarter devices but also smarter systems that know us — and actually become a part of us.”

Phone companies are already adapting to this shift. Many mobile plans are abandoning voice and text limits in favor of sheer data usage, but that’s just the beginning.

“If anything, the word ‘chat’ will become archaic,” said Rhoads. “It’s just going to become more and more ubiquitous. You won’t even think about it, it will just be what you do — especially when you get into wearables and haptic responses and other ways that humans communicate.”

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