News / Science & Technology

New Mobile Apps Could Pose Threat for Facebook

The Kakao Talk app is popular with teenagers.
The Kakao Talk app is popular with teenagers.
Reuters
Create personal profiles. Build networks of friends. Share photos, videos and music.
That might sound precisely like Facebook, but hundreds of millions of tech-savvy young people have instead turned to a wave of smartphone-based messaging apps that are now sweeping across North America, Asia and Europe.

The hot apps include Kik and Whatsapp, both products of North American startups, as well as Kakao Inc's KakaoTalk, NHN Corp's LINE and Tencent Holdings Ltd's  WeChat, which have blossomed in Asian markets.

Combining elements of text messaging and social networking, the apps provide a quick-fire way for smartphone users to trade everything from brief texts to flirtatious pictures to YouTube clips - bypassing both the SMS plans offered by wireless carriers and established social networks originally designed as websites.

Facebook Inc, with 1 billion users, remains by far the world's most popular website, and its stepped-up focus on mobile has made it the most-used smartphone app as well. Still, across Silicon Valley, investors and industry insiders say there is a possibility that the messaging apps could threaten Facebook's dominance over the next few years. The larger ones are even starting to emerge as full-blown "platforms'' that can support third-party applications such as games.

To be sure, many of those who are using the new messaging apps remain on Facebook, indicating there is little immediate sign of the giant social media company losing its lock on the market. And at a press event this week, the company will unveil news relating to Android, the world's most popular smartphone operating system, which could include a new version of Android with deeper integration of Facebook messaging tools - or possibly even a Facebook-branded phone.

But the firms that can take over the messaging world should be able to make some big inroads, investors say.

"True interactions are conversational in nature,'' says Rich Miner, a partner at Google Ventures who invested in San Francisco-based MessageMe, a new entrant in the messaging market. "More people text and make phone calls than get on to social networks. If one company dominates the replacement of that traffic, then by definition that's very big.''

Facebook spokespeople declined to comment for this article, citing this Thursday's planned announcement.

Facebook's big challenge is reeling back users like Jacob Robinson, a 15-year old high school student in Newcastle upon Tyne in Britain., who said the Kik messaging app "blew up'' among his friends about six months ago. It has remained the most-used app on his Android phone because it is the easiest way for him to send different kinds of multimedia for free, which he estimated he does about 200 times a day.

Robinson said he trades snapshots of his homework with friends while they stay up late studying for their exams - or not.

"We also stay up in bed with our phone all night, just on YouTube searching for funny videos, then you quickly share it with your friends,'' he added. "It's easy. You can flip in and out of Kik.''

 Facebook "has really started to lose its edge over here,'' said Robinson, who found his interactions on Facebook less interesting than his real-time chats.

Waterloo, Ontario-based Kik has racked up 40 million users since launching in 2010. Silicon Valley entrants in the race include Whatsapp, funded by Sequoia Capital, and MessageMe, launched earlier this month by a group of viral game makers. MessageMe has received seed-stage funding from True Ventures and First Round Capital, among others, and claimed 1 million downloads in its first week.

Meanwhile, Asian companies are producing some of the fastest-growing apps in history. Tencent's WeChat boasts 400 million users - far more than Twitter, by way of comparison - while LINE and KakaoTalk claim 120 million and 80 million users, respectively. Both have laid the groundwork to expand into the U.S. market.

Mobile wave

The growth in the messaging apps reflect the dramatic shift in Internet usage in recent years, as Web visits via desktop computers have stagnated while smartphone ownership and app downloads have skyrocketed.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures while speaking to the audience during a media event at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California March 7, 2013.Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures while speaking to the audience during a media event at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California March 7, 2013.
x
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures while speaking to the audience during a media event at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California March 7, 2013.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures while speaking to the audience during a media event at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California March 7, 2013.
Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has publicly called Facebook a "mobile company'' to emphasize the company's priorities. Last year, he splashed $1 billion for photo-sharing app Instagram, which has remained red hot, while Facebook also launched its own Messenger app, offering a suite of smartphone communication tools.

Still, Facebook has also been forced to play defense. Earlier this year, the company cut off its data integration with a young startup called Snapchat and then mimicked its feature with a new messaging tool called Poke, which sends messages that self-destruct. It has also shut off its integration with messaging apps like MessageMe and Voxer.

At the same time, Facebook has also hired graphic artists to draw emoticons and graphics for Messenger that emulate features of the wildly popular Asian apps like LINE, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Dave Morin, an early Facebook employee who left to found the "private'' social network Path in 2010, said he recognized last summer the critical role of messaging functions in smartphone apps, and quickly began working to incorporate them.

Since Path released a new version of its app earlier this month, the number of Path's daily users has risen 15 percent, which Morin attributed to the new messaging features.

"What's the number one reason why people have this thing?'' said Morin, holding up his iPhone. ``It's to call, to text, to communicate.''

Messaging, Morin added, is "the basis for the mobile social network.''

Platform threat

While established social networks move to incorporate messaging features, the new-wave messaging apps are looking to grow into social networking platforms that support a variety of features and enable innovations from outside developers.

"The tried and true approach for a social network is first you build a network, then you build apps on your own, then you open it up to third party developers,'' said Charles Hudson, a partner at early stage venture capital firm SoftTech VC.

The moves mirror Facebook's younger days, when its user growth and revenues were boosted by game publishers like Zynga Inc, which made popular games like FarmVille for the Facebook platform.

In the South Korean market, for instance, eight of the top 10 highest grossing Android apps are games built on top of KakaoTalk. Tencent announced in November that it would introduce a mobile wallet feature enabling payment for goods with WeChat. And Tencent also makes money in China by using the app's location data to displaying nearby merchants' deals to potential customers.

If the messaging apps reach a certain scale, they could form networks that rival Facebook's "social graph,'' the network of user connections and activities that enable highly targeted delivery of content and advertising.

"The folks on your address book are very different from your Facebook friends and your LinkedIn contacts, and that's a natural place for a very powerful graph to be created,'' said Jim Goetz, a partner at Sequoia Capital.

Ted Livingston, the 25-year old chief executive of Kik, said he developed the capability for his service to support external features in November, and he plans to open the platform to outside developers in the near future.

Livingston said Kik and Whatsapp were "in a race to see who's the first to build a platform.''

Whatsapp, which has been the most widely downloaded communication app for both iOS and Android in recent months, according to analysis firm App Annie, has been profitable by selling subscriptions to its service for $1 a year. Although it has remained mum about its platform plans, the company has been rumored to be in talks with Asian game publishers about hosting games, according to news reports in South Korea.

Goetz declined to address the reports, saying only that because it relied on a subscription business model, Whatsapp did not need to sell games or ads to make money.

Still, he said, the Whatsapp team "spends a lot of timE thinking about the developer community.''

Deal potential

Established social networking giants could also swoop in for the upstarts - and Facebook has demonstrated its appetite for acquisitions.

Indeed, investors are eyeing a round of potentially lucrative buyouts resembling the series of deals involving group messaging applications in 2011.

Facebook acquired group messaging app Beluga in March of that year, enlisting its founders to help build its own stand alone app, Messenger, which launched six months later.

In late 2010, First Round Capital, an early stage venture capital firm, invested in a group messaging startup that was sold to Skype just fifteen months after it launched.

Kent Goldman, a First Round partner who has backed MessageMe, said it was unlikely that the market in the long term could support numerous independent messaging startups, which by their nature become more powerful as they grow larger.
       
"You don't want to be the smallest one when the music stops,'' he said.

You May Like

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs