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Summary:

Nothing is fragmented in the mobile app space quite like SMS alternatives. Is there a possibility for a company to surge and become the one messaging app to rule them all?

LineStickers
photo: Line

Smartphone users gravitate toward message apps that have regional popularity, downloading and hopping on apps their friends use to be a part of the crowd. They’re booming globally, as App Annie’s July Index for non-gaming apps categorizes six of the top 10 downloaded apps in Google Play as messaging apps, but they are all fragmented by region. I believe that the time is right for one to surge ahead and take a position at the top of the heap.

App Annie says that the big players are LINE in Japan, WeChat in China, Kakao in South Korea, Viber in Cyprus (though its popularity encompasses Israel and the Middle East), and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in the U.S. Each app has focused on growing a local user base, but now the companies are playing a calculated game of country domination that looks a lot like the board game Risk: App Annie reports that apps have been marketed heavily in new regions, most notably LINE in India and WhatsApp in Argentina, to gain footholds in new markets. The plan it seems, is to establish firm local roots and create a strong infrastructure of users, rather than target broadly.

It’s pretty simple logic, as users only join messaging apps if their friends are on board — a combination of special communication channels and the ever present fear of missing out — motivate groups of people to sign up at once. But this scaling tactic is agonizingly slow. For example, while LINE remains the top global grossing non-gaming app in the Google Play Store and second to Facebook in the iTunes App Store, it has failed to gain traction in the U.S. since it hit America’s shores in January of this year.

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If any one of these apps expects to be the global answer to SMS, the key will be in a novel user acquisition method that eschews these tenuous regional connections for a faster and more efficient adoption initiative. While these six apps are locked in position to achieve supremacy right now in the ever-flooding message app space, further delays could open an avenue for a new challenger with aggressive tactics or messaging (Path comes to mind) to step up and take over. Companies have engaged in initiatives to spam user’s address books with robocalls and text invites to get them on the service, to mixed results. But the right recipe could lead to a faster rate of adoption over time.

Still, the challenges that message app companies are facing shows, if nothing, that although the mobile market is global, countries are very closely culturally tied to their own app preferences — even if every single company offers rough iterations on the same specific set of products and features. Maybe it’s too much to hope for, but it’ll offer a sweet bounty to the company that cracks it.

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  1. I think that this article misses the point.

    Even though certain services have dominance in specific local markets for *standalone* messaging, this is still only the generic, lowest-common denominator part of the market.

    The future involves the absorption of messaging into the fabric of other apps or websites. Messaging becomes a feature, not a service. This is already seen with Facebook, where many messages are an inherent part of some other activity (eg invites to an event).

    The idea of “one app to rule them all” also goes back to the obsolete days of telephony and SMS. One reason that people like the new apps is the ability to separate out styles/types of messaging and personal interaction, rather than have them all blended together. For example, SMS is open-to-all – meaning that it attracts spammers as well as people you’d rather not hear from. Others (eg BBM, LinkedIn) have controls about who has your contact details, because they’re not based on your main phone number.

    This fragmentation is actually valuable, but many who come from the old telecoms world still cling to the view that “ubiquity” is all-important. In fact, the opposite is true,

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