What do we mean when we talk about “messaging” services?


Credit: Corbis / Jim Frazier

The recent news that more messages are being sent over mobile chat apps than through SMS was, I think, quite significant. Not necessarily in terms of straight numbers — the analyst figures that sparked the story were certainly conservative, so the shift must have happened a while ago — but as a reminder of how one technical means of communication can supersede another, and also as an indication of the challenges that mobile operators currently face.

Mobile analyst Dean Bubley, on the other hand, is clearly unimpressed with the coverage of this subject. In a somewhat irate blog post today, he attacked the notion that there is a simple dichotomy between SMS and “over-the-top” (OTT) apps such as WhatsApp, along with the idea that the carriers’ Joyn collaboration might save their bacon:

“A central theme in these articles is a supposed battle for the ‘messaging market’, with lazy journalists or vendor marketeers painting a dark picture of mortal combat between the righteous fortress of SMS revenues, the marauding hordes of barbarian OTT players at the gates, and the Knights of Joyn riding to the rescue in their shining armour of interoperability.

“This is all palpable nonsense — a strawman argument to reframe a complex and dynamic situation into the usual fatuous and imaginary Us vs. Them, Telcos vs OTTs narrative, coupled to a desperate attempt to make RCS and its GSMA-branded offspring look relevant. Not only is this argument flawed, the likely outcomes will in many cases be worse than useless.”

What really gets Bubley’s goat is the idea that there actually is a “messaging market” as such. As he points out, there is little to compare between a WhatsApp chat and an embedded customer support IM conversation, or between an SMS exchange and an email with a document attached. They’re all messaging, but they’re not the same thing at all.

And what’s more, each one of those scenarios could be supported by a variety of “messaging” technologies:

“Any worthwhile analysis would look at various ways to slice up this supposed monolithic market into separate buckets reflecting context or intent. Perhaps social messaging vs. advertising vs. standalone information vs. gossip vs. B2B meeting arrangement vs. one-way app updates. Or sliced by length of a messaging ‘session’ or number of participants, or a hundred other ways.”

This is very true, and it has me thinking about what we mean when we talk about messaging. But it also has me thinking about our use of other terms, in particular the word “social”.

Facebook(s fb), for example, is a service we would think of as quintessentially social — but it’s also a messaging service. Just look at Facebook Home, where the social network takes over the user’s Android handset in a way that effectively melds Facebook messaging and SMS. When you’re sending a message through that interface, which medium are you using? Who cares?

When I was talking to Viber CEO Talmon Marco ahead of today’s desktop app launch, he characterized his Skype-rivaling product in interesting terms:

“We’re starting to see the lines between communication and social are breaking. Once you go into groups and larger groups — today we support groups of up to 40 people — and put a picture in there, is that a communication or social?

“I exchange Viber messages hundreds of times a day. On Facebook(s fb) I share something once a week, once every two weeks. I’m always thinking twice about what I put on Facebook. I find myself more engaged with an app like Viber than with Facebook. I create far more content for Viber than with Facebook and I think the same applies to most people.”

Most people, of course, aren’t the CEO of Viber, but his underlying point is nonetheless valid. “Messaging” and “social” are merely two facets of modern communications (which can itself be a subset of some other service) and trying to tease the two apart is increasingly difficult.

Which brings us back to Bubley’s post. As I suggested above, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to discount the recognition of OTT apps’ acceleration past traditional SMS. However, it is certainly true that clear-cut comparisons between the various messaging options out there today are near-impossible, if not futile.

Ultimately, messaging is increasingly just a feature, as is the case with social. When you’re designing the communications services of the future, or even the services that make use of communications, context and intent are what count.



I am not conviced by Viber’s CEO definition of where he is more engaged.

Two assumptions that I think are easy to assert here:
1. Skype is bigger than Viber at the moment – especially in terms of amount of engagement
2. Facebook and Viber are oranges to apples – we use them to solve different problems

But if it is engagement you are after, then how about counting the minutes we engage? Deriving from a recent infographic by Skype, it is easy to say that it is 20% the size of Facebook (http://bloggeek.me/skype-less-than-facebook/). Which makes Viber even smaller.

You might share more with smaller groups on Viber, but you interact a lot more (likes and comments) on Facebook – at least if you are not the CEO of Viber :-)

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