Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lure of the instant message

The recent report that telecom operators lost $13.9 billion in revenue to social messaging applications has got many wondering if our good-old SMS is on its death-bed. It may be early to write off SMS, but it’s a fact that IM apps like Nimbuzz, Fring, WhatsApp etc are rapidly gaining popularity.

These apps are nothing new -- they have been around for many years. But we now see a huge surge their adoption mainly because of availability and affordability of better-quality of handsets. The biggest advantage of these IM apps is that messaging and calling friends who are using the same app is free of cost. Even if the other person is not using the same app, the cost is minimal. Incidentally, Fring recently dropped the call rates.

Nimbuzz Ping, for example, helps users save on even data charges. Vikas Saxena, CEO, Nimbuzz India, told me how this works. "It allows users appear online and available to their contacts even when Nimbuzz app is closed. When contacts want to reach them, Nimbuzz Ping delivers free SMS prompting users to log in to Nimbuzz and communicate.”

There are so many things you can do with these apps. Users can also play games, compete with friends, check live cricket scores, get astrology forecasts etc. You can also video chat and chat in groups.

Figures testify the surge in usage of IM apps. WhatsApp users send more than 2 billion messages daily up from 1 billion in October. Even much smaller Pinger users sent 2 billion messages in January up from 1.7 billion in December. Some 150,000 new users register daily on Nimbuzz which has 15 million uses from India.

Other than the free-of-cost attraction, whta’s driving their adoption is the convergence factor -- you can add Google Talk, Facebook, Yahoo IM, Windows Live IM etc -- a huge convenience when your buddies are on different platforms.

For example, you may be a regular Facebook user, but your close friends are on Google Talk and Yahoo! Messenger. You can still chat with all of them via one app like Nimbuzz, even if they are not on Nimbuzz -- a one-stop shop for all communication needs of a user.

But, there are downsides too. One, many apps are heavy and if your mobile is low on space and memory, they could slow down the device. Two, since they need a data plan, IM apps are only as good the connectivity, which in turn depends on the device and the network provider. Three, keeping the app on for long time could drain the battery. And four, shared files could be infected harming the device and compromising information.

Telecom operators who are losing money aren’t just sitting back. Some of them in France, Italy, Germany and South Korea are currently testing a new messaging system called Joyn. They are targeting what they see as a drawback of current IM apps -- that these apps need to be downloaded, and to enjoy free-of-cost facility, both the parties should have the same IM installed.

The proponents of Joyn say that their messaging system will come embedded in all phones, very much like the current texting facility, but it will go step further and allow users to chat and share files. But these are early days, and Joyn is indeed a long way off.

Let us be realistic: texting wouldn’t just go away like that. But, for sure, its usage may see a gradual decline, as more and more people, especially the youth, adopt smartphones, data plans get more affordable and more free wi-fi hotspots become available.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope; and a shortened version of this appeared in my column Wireless World in today's Times of India, Bangalore)

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