A fast-growing crowd of mobile messaging apps with funny names like WhatsApp, WeChat and KakaoTalk is rankling technology giants from Silicon Valley to Seoul

March 27, 2013, 8:13 p.m. ET

The Messaging Apps Taking on Facebook, Phone Giants


On a recent Saturday, Johan Dijkland, a 23-year-old student in Emmen, Netherlands, opened a free messaging app called Line on his iPhone. Then he tapped on a virtual sticker of a sleepy panda with a “good night” speech bubble and pressed send to a friend.

With that action, Mr. Dijkland’s text joined the tens of billions of messages that are processed every day from a fast-growing crowd of mobile messaging apps.

These messaging apps—with funny names like WhatsApp, WeChat and KakaoTalk—have become an indispensable form of communication for hundreds of millions of people world-wide.

They are also rankling technology giants from Silicon Valley to Seoul. That is because when users like Mr. Dijkland send messages using Line, his mobile carrier Vodafone Group VOD.LN -0.05% PLC and iPhone maker Apple Inc. AAPL -2.00% don’t directly profit from the interaction.

And as Mr. Dijkland’s use of the free app Line grows—he estimates he spends three to four hours a day on Line sending dozens of messages and stickers—his time using other conversational channels such as social networkFacebook Inc. FB +3.51% has declined.

“On Line you have conversations, so you react by the minute,” said Mr. Dijkland, who started using Line five months ago. “On Facebook you just look at the news feed and after that, there’s not more to see.”

Line, which is especially popular in Japan, has been downloaded more than 110 million times, said Jeanie Han, CEO of Line USA. The app, and others like it available for download, are rapidly replacing the fixtures on phones from BlackBerry,BB.T +0.89% Apple and others.

Texting apps are especially costing wireless carriers, which for years relied on the services for the bulk of their revenue.

By some estimates a single text, which may cost as much as 20 cents to send or receive, costs the carriers themselves just one-hundredth of a cent. The rise of texting apps has taken away $23 billion in revenue from carriers as of the end of 2012, according to market research firm Ovum.

Matt Murphy, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who has invested in voice and text messaging service textPlus Inc., said mobile messaging has now become people’s “primary social graph.” He added, “Apps are taking that audience and turning that into something bigger.”

As a result, companies including Facebook, Deutsche Telekom AGDTE.XE +0.84% and Samsung Electronics Corp. 005930.SE -0.20% are making a land grab into the messaging app market.

Facebook acquired mobile messaging startup Beluga in 2011 and recently expressed interest in buying WhatsApp Inc.—a company that has also been approached by Google GOOG -1.20% andTencent Holdings Ltd., 0700.HK -1.52% people familiar with the matter said. The company, which consistently appears near the top of Apple’s list of top paid mobile apps, wasn’t interested in selling.

Last February, Deutsche Telekom invested $7.5 million in messaging app Pinger. SK Telecom Co., 017670.SE 0.00% South Korea’s largest mobile carrier, also last year purchased MadSmart, maker of popular messaging app TicToc. And in October,Yahoo Japan Corp. 4689.TO +1.76% purchased a 50% stake of Kakao Corp.’s Japanese subsidiary.

Samsung, which debuted its own messaging app called ChatOn in late 2011, has reached out to mobile messaging startups including MessageMe, for possible partnerships, said people with knowledge of the matter. The handset maker, according to one person close to the company, is trying to bulk up on mobile software as mobile becomes a larger portion of its revenue.

Meanwhile, social games maker ZyngaInc., ZNGA -0.30% which has a partnership with WeChat parent Tencent, has reached out to Kakao and others to promote its games in the messaging apps, said people familiar with the company. Over the long term, Zynga also plans to build its own unified messaging service for its games network, these people said.

“This is a market where everyone is talking to everyone,” said Talmon Marco, chief executive of Viber, based in Cyprus. He said his messaging company—which has more than 175 million subscribers, more than triple from a year ago—recently signed with Indonesian carrier AXIS Telekom Indonesia to be the preferred messaging app on the network and plans to announce another half dozen or so carrier partnerships in the next few months. Mr. Marco said Viber is also talking to games companies about promoting games on its platform.

Big tech companies acknowledge that mobile messaging is a top priority. Peter Deng, Facebook’s director of product management who handles communication applications, said messaging apps weren’t a big focus two years ago—but he now spends about 75% of his time thinking about mobile messaging “because it’s important to the people we serve.”

Facebook is now playing catch-up in mobile messaging. The company released a stand-alone messaging app in late 2011 and only started allowing people to sign up for a Facebook messenger account with their phone number last year.

More recently, Facebook has stapled on new features to its messaging app, like calling, voice mail and impermanent texts. It plans to accelerate product releases for its messaging services, Mr. Deng said.

Messaging apps, known as “over-the-top” apps because consumers don’t pay carriers directly for the services, typically go beyond plain-vanilla text messaging with features such as voice notes, camera applications, access to games and virtual stickers that are popular among teens and young adults.

The juggernaut of messaging apps is widely considered to be WhatsApp, based in Mountain View, Calif., and founded in 2009. In January, WhatsApp said it processed 18 billion messages a day, up from 10 billion five months earlier, the company has said. The app has hundreds of millions of users, with more than 100 million downloads on Google’s Android phone alone.

Tencent’s WeChat, meanwhile, said it crossed 300 million subscribers in January.

But messaging apps face challenges in converting their popularity into significant revenue. WhatsApp has no advertising and charges its users $1 a year. It also has brokered lucrative arrangements with carriers—some, for instance, will sell users special WhatsApp packages that offers unlimited data through WhatsApp for a small fee per month.

Kakao, with about 82 million subscribers, takes a kitchen sink approach to making money, generating revenue from sales of stickers, games, advertising and an e-commerce store where users can buy Starbucks SBUX -0.25% credit or $1,000 diamond necklaces.

Kakao co-CEO Sirgoo Lee said his Seoul-based messaging app makes roughly half its money from promoting mobile games of third-party publishers. It splits games revenue with platform providers like Apple and the game makers themselves, keeping about 20%. Since August, Kakao has grown games revenue from $500,000 a month to $4 million a month, he said.

“We don’t know exactly what will work, but we’re constantly experimenting,” he said.

NHN Corp.’s 035420.SE -0.74% Line also makes most of its money through sales of virtual goods in games and special stickers, which it sells for $1.99 a set.

Since late last year, Ms. Han said she has been inundated by calls from games companies and mobile carriers pitching revenue-sharing deals, including offers to be preinstalled on smartphones. Buyers are also knocking on her door, but she said Line doesn’t need to sell because it is backed by a public South Korean company and has plenty of capital and momentum.

“I’ve had people call me about it, but right now my answer is no,” she said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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