The world has witnessed fantastic growth in the user numbers of popular chat apps. Equally important is the fact that as chat apps expand their global footprint, they have also been expanding the number of services that can be accessed on the platform. Chat apps are seen as a platform for media and content, and with the introduction of artificial intelligence through chat bots and opening of APIs to businesses, chat apps have fundamentally transformed the way consumers interact with digital content.
As chat apps rapidly expand their offerings, they are well poised to become the gatekeepers to the consumer’s digital world. This in turn impacts established distribution channels such as search engines, app stores and platforms for digital media, payments and e-commerce. It is these very players, including handset vendors, digital service providers and other chat apps that should be aware of the evolution of chat apps not only in their services but also in their user base.
Team Facebook – comprising WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger – is the clear leader in the chat app and social networking space. Messenger and WhatsApp both crossed 1 billion monthly active users (MAUs) in July and February of 2016 respectively, while Instagram crossed 700 million MAUs at the end of 2016. This growth swell is set to continue, allowing WhatsApp and Facebook to close in on the 2 billion MAU milestone.
The competition is not far behind – Tencent’s WeChat is also nearing the 1 billion MAU mark. Facebook is well positioned as a provider of a pure-play communications-based chat app (WhatsApp), media focused app (Instagram) and a platform-based chat app (Messenger). WeChat, on the other hand, has been winning at the platform space for several years now and is a key influencer of mobile content consumption in the APAC region.
App store alternative
In January 2017, WeChat announced the introduction of mini programs on its platform. These mini programs enable users to use apps on the platform without having to download them. Popular Chinese internet services like JD.com and Didi have already launched mini programs on WeChat. Through mini programs, WeChat offers a light version of the partner app, and essentially breaks down that barrier to entry for first time users of the service. It enables users to try an app without going through the process of downloading it, which is especially useful for emerging markets where data usage is still expensive and metered.
WeChat’s mini-program strategy is clearly aimed at providing an alternative to third-party app stores. With this move, the chat app becomes the primary platform for a user to experiment with an app rather than the handset app store. As of now, WeChat has not announced the launch of a store for its mini programs. We expect that this would be a long-term strategy depending on the uptake of mini programs on the chat app.
Facebook Messenger has launched over 30,000 bots that enable a light app-like experience on the Messenger service. Its AI agent, M, lets users have a user-friendly search experience, pitting Messenger in direct competition with Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. If chat apps are able to curate relevant content on the platform and team it up with a seamless AI agent, then the apps could invert the current search process making the chat app AI agent the primary contact point for search, payments and content for the user, as opposed to services like Google Search, Siri or Alexa. Players like Google and Amazon should strengthen their competitive advantage and adopt mobile-first strategies with chat at the core before AI on chat apps gathers even more momentum.