Get the message

TUESDAY, MAY 28, 2013

By SUSANNA KHOO

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Available on all types of smartphones, messaging apps are here to stay

Smartphone users aren’t making voice calls as often as they used to. With the dawn of mobile Internet connectivity, they now have plenty of options ­available for communicating while on the go. Currently, one of the popular methods for doing so is through mobile messaging apps.

A form of Over-The-Top (OTT) content (meaning that it is Internet reliant and bypasses traditional telecommunications distribution methods), these apps have helped users overcome some of the ­problems they had faced previously with voice calls and SMS.

For instance, gone are the days where users need to fret over how to shorten their words and ­sentences to ensure the ­character count doesn’t exceed 140. Nowadays, users can easily send multiple messages through such apps for free as long as they have a data connection.

Moreover, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) technology also enables them to talk at greater length with their loved ones without worrying about per minute charges.

Frequent usage
“We are seeing a trend across the Asia Pacific region, and in Malaysia as well, where the use of messaging apps is the fourth ­highest Internet based activity done on smartphones,” says Akmal Ab Wahab, telecommunications market analyst at IDC Market Research (M) Sdn Bhd. He cites e-mailing, downloading of mobile apps and social networking as the other top three.

Such behaviour has ­undoubtedly been encouraged by the fact that the technology behind it has become so much more accessible to consumers.

“The adoption of mobile ­messaging apps is ­increasing because smartphones are ­becoming more ubiquitous and mobile data plans are becoming more ­affordable,” says Nipun Jaiswal, industry analyst for ICT practice in Asia Pacific at Frost & Sullivan Inc.

Smartphone users made up 25% of mobile subscribers in 2012. This was a 5% increase from 2011, and Nipun estimates it will surpass the 50% mark by the year 2016.

In addition, he says that the demand for smartphones has been bolstered by “competitively priced and flexible daily, weekly or ­monthly mobile Internet plans.”

“The government is also helping in this area,” says Akmal, referring to the Youth Communications Package that was announced last year. The package allows youth who earn RM3,000 and below the chance to claim a RM200 rebate for the purchase of a smartphone.

The cost of SMS can also be viewed as a contributing factor. “In this region, SMS is still quite expensive compared to developed markets. Because of that, even without any promotional activities, messaging apps are already able to do well.”

Spoilt for choice
Given the good response from consumers, more and more app developers have begun ­breaking into the scene. Consequently, ­consumers now have a wider range of mobile messaging apps to choose from.

However, the decision on which app to use doesn’t seem to be a ­difficult one.

“They will use the app that helps them reach the most number of people,” says Sandy Shen, research director of consumer services at Gartner, Inc. She calls this the “network effect.”

“This leads to one dominating app for each country. For instance, it’s Line for Japan, Kakao Talk for Korea and WeChat for China,” she explains.

“Therefore, some users will have more than one app so that they can connect with friends in other countries and communities.”

However, Akmal sees a different reason for having multiple apps. “I think consumers use more than one app because each app has its own competencies or strengths,” he says.

“WhatsApp solely offers ­messaging services whereas other like WeChat and Line offer more features such as a diverse range of stickers (cutesy, larger-than-life emoticons) and additional content that can be purchased,” says T. Kugan, head of product, device and innovation at Maxis Bhd.

“This suggests that users have become more sophisticated and more is needed from these apps in order to attract users.”

Mass appeal
The ongoing battle to capture the hearts of consumers has led ­developers to continue ­innovating new and interesting features in order to make their messaging apps stand out among the rest.

“Awareness campaigns such as TV commercials and the use of celebrity endorsements have accelerated the take-up rate for these apps amongst consumers,” observes Praveen Rajan, head of product marketing for Internet and services at DiGi Telecommunications Sdn Bhd.

He adds that the introduction of other social networking features such as location based services have also helped increase interest in ­certain apps.

“The blurring of lines between social networking features and mobile messaging can be expected to continue until the distinction between the two becomes very vague indeed,” says Suresh Sidhu, chief corporate and operations officer at Celcom Axiata Bhd.

Besides that, Akmal highlights gaming as another aspect which can potentially attract end users. “Kakao Talk and Line are doing a lot in this sphere. They are ­developing their own games and linking them to the app. These are features that young users will love.”

Game changer
Telecommunications companies are keen on getting some of the action on the messaging apps front too.
“Telcos don’t want to just be ­service providers anymore, they want to be innovative,” says Akmal.

One of the ways that he has seen this being achieved is through the development of a rich ­communication suite (RCS) ­platform. RCS is an all-IP (Internet protocol) service, ­offering ­consumers a rich multimedia ­experience across all devices they own (PC, tablets, phones, etc) through a subscription plan with a telco.

This concept has yet to come to Asia, but Akmal says it has already been implemented in other parts of the world by network operators such as SK Telekom in Korea and Telefonica in Spain.

“Another big area that is ­coming up is mobile commerce where online shopping features will be integrated with the messaging app platform,” adds Akmal.

On the whole, things seem to be looking up as far as messaging app usage is concerned.

“These industry dynamics indicate a bright future for mobile ­messaging apps whereas SMS usage would inevitably suffer,” says Nipun.

However, he adds a caveat: “The reliability of SMS is still supreme. One can count on an SMS to be delivered, but the delivery of an OTT message will depend on Internet access and availability of the app on a recipient’s smartphone.”

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