Tue, Nov 25, 2014 - Page 12 News List

What’s next for
messaging apps

Snapchat, WeChat and their rivals are placing big bets on what users want — and how to make money from it

By Stuart Dredge  /  The Guardian

Icons of the applications WhatsApp, left, Laiwang of Alibaba Group, center, and WeChat are seen on the screen of a smartphone in this file photo dated Feb. 24.

Photo: Reuters

Messaging apps are massive. WhatsApp has more than 600 million active users, while its stablemate Facebook Messenger has more than 500 million. Chinese rival WeChat — known as Weixin in its homeland — has another 468 million.

And those are just the 900lb gorillas of the messaging world. Snapchat, Viber, KakaoTalk, Line, Kik, Tango, BBM and others have eight or nine-figure active user totals, while Apple’s iMessage serves iOS users.

Meanwhile, new apps like current US college buzz Yik Yak or recent novelty-buzz Yo are popping up all the time with new spins on messaging.

So how will these apps evolve? Beyond adding in features like voice calls and video chat, four main paths are emerging, although they’re by no means mutually exclusive: privacy, payments, media and ads, with the latter including advertising.

The messaging apps share some simple goals: They want to attract more users, retain the loyalty of the ones they have already, and find ways to make money that don’t conflict with the first two aims. Here’s a snapshot of how they’re approaching this.

PRIVACY AND ENCRYPTION

Until now, there have been two distinct classes of messaging apps: the big, mainstream ones, and the group focusing specifically on encryption and privacy, including TextSecure, Telegram, Hemlis, Threema, Wickr and others.

That may be changing, with the biggest signpost being WhatsApp’s recent addition of end-to-end encryption to its Android app with iOS to follow. It’s working with the company behind TextSecure, Open Whisper Systems, which described the partnership as “the largest deployment of end-to-end encrypted communication in history.”

The aim with this technology is to reassure users that even if the provider of their messaging app wanted to share their messages with intelligence agencies, they wouldn’t be able to. That’s a point Apple has made about its iMessages system too.

“If the government laid a subpoena to get iMessages, we can’t provide it. It’s encrypted and we don’t have a key,” said CEO Tim Cook in a September interview. However, researchers have challenged the company’s claims.

This is the other important trend around privacy and messaging apps: not just that the big ones are paying more attention to it, but that they’ll be facing scrutiny to check if their claims are true.

That’s already happened in the case of Viber, with security a key feature in its app. In April, researchers suggested that it was transmitting images and video without encryption, including storing them online afterwards. The company moved quickly to fix the vulnerability.

Even the WhatsApp announcement, which came with a respected partner, sparked questions about how the metadata from messages — who contacted whom and where — might be dealt with by Facebook. Bodies like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are already active in this debate, as its Secure Messaging Scorecard shows.

PAYMENTS AND SHOPPING

Chatting to friends and swapping photos and videos are the core of messaging apps, but payments — whether to those friends or to companies selling products and services — is one of the new frontiers.

Snapchat got in early recently when it launched Snapcash, a partnership with payments firm Square that will enable people to register their debit cards with the latter company, then send cash to friends’ bank accounts within the app.

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