Best Messaging Apps 2013

There are hundreds of messaging apps available in the iTunes and Google Play app stores. The market for messaging apps is a really crowded space and for users it is increasingly difficult to get an overview of the best apps available. Here is our take on the best messaging apps in 2013 for various categories:

Best Instant Messaging App

1. Whatsapp
2. Line
3. Kik

Reason: Whatsapp is a fast and comprehensive instant messaging app. While the app has some weaknesses (e.g. when used for extensive group messaging and sharing), Whatsapp is very performant and available across all platforms.

Best Group Messaging App

1. Grouptime
2. Band
3. Groupme

Reason: Grouptime continuously keeps innovating and regularly launches new features to offer users the best group messaging and sharing experience. Grouptime is a powerful but still easy to use app, and comes with strong privacy protection.

Best Special Messaging App

1. Snapchat
2. Voxer
3. DingDong

Reason: Snapchat is great for ephermal messaging of photos, and has been one of the most popular apps among teens in 2013. If it is of wider use for the mainstream remains to be seen, but it has probably been the most hyped messaging app of the year.

Best Private Messaging App

1. Grouptime
2. Wickr
3. Silent Circle

Reason: Grouptime is a German company with strong data protection and privacy terms. Besides messages are not only encrypted, but in addition user data gets anonymized and no address books are stored. With this comprehensive set of features Grouptime has the lead over competitors from the USA.

Best Business Messaging App

1. Teamwire
2. Tigertext
3. Slack

Reason: Teamwire is a new enterprise messaging app with a very compelling feature set – personal and group messages, status updates for your teams, video messages, calendar sharing, file exchange, and more. The app is fast and easy to use, and besides very secure.

New Messaging Apps and Current Trends

The first wave of messaging apps on smartphones had mainly one goal: To replace texting/SMS and offer better messaging at much lower cost. The instant messaging apps started with sending simple text messages, and then soon added the ability to exchange photos and other digital content, as well as nice features like delivered receipts. Nowadays, many messaging apps are far superior to texting/SMS, and several even offer group chats. To better understand, what the next wave of messaging apps will improve, it makes sense to have a closer look at current trends in the messaging space.

Stickers, Fun and Personal Messaging

Stickers have probably been the biggest trend among messaging apps for the last couple of months. In addition to the classical emoticons (emoji), stickers offer users an additional way to express themselves – referring to the questionable quote: “a sticker says more than a 1000 words”. Most major providers (e.g. Line, Viber, Kakao Talk, ChatON) have added stickers of all sorts: Comic figures, cartoons, art, popular brands, etc. These stickers are often available in packages, and in many cases they cost between $1 and $2. Stickers have become a substantial source of revenue for messaging apps – especially for the Asian providers, which generate millions of dollars with stickers.

Another way to make texting more fun and personal is the introduction of custom fonts. If a message can be sent in a custom font like a handwriting, marker, news or comic type, it enables the user to better express themselves and gives the message a personal note. Furthermore, with custom themes or backgrounds users can receive kind of a “mobile postcard”. The first messaging app that introduced custom fonts and themes for more personal messaging was Grouptime, but other providers seem to start to follow.

Single Purpose Messaging Apps

Snapchat was one of the first popular single purpose messaging apps. Snapchat allowed users to send photos only, and assured that they are deleted on the recipients device automatically. Recently, some other apps have tried to be successful with the single purpose approach as well: DingDong focuses on location sharing only and GIF Chat enables users to exchange animated GIFs only. The success of the single purpose messaging apps remains to be seen. If they offer differentiated functionality or a use case that cannot be easily replicated by the leading messaging apps, they have a chance to establish a niche for their product. However, e.g. a standard location sharing feature alone is probably not enough to make such a simple app attractive for a broader set of users.

GIF Chat

Better Group Messaging and Sharing

While group chats are a standard by now, the users are often not satisfied with standard group chat functionality anymore: For sharing of photos with friends, group chats are easy to set up, but are not visually nice and don’t provide quick feedback mechanisms. Even if group chats are easy to set up, if you regularly start group chats with the same people, there should be simpler ways to add recipients or save distribution lists. Or, if users start different topics within the same chat, the communication can get confusing. These are just some of many examples, where better group messaging functionality is required.

Thus, some providers are now offering sophisticated group messaging and sharing solutions for family and friends (e.g. Grouptime, Line Band).  Some of these apps really work like the combination of an instant messaging app and a private social network: There is real-time communication with push notifications, but the group messages are presented in a nice visual feed, even with the ability to like content. Once you have tried it, you will see how superior this is to traditional group chats.

Stronger Security and Privacy

Due to the latest PRISM and NSA affair, more and more users are worried about their privacy and demand stronger security features from messaging apps. As a result, several secure messaging apps have been announced (e.g. Hemlis, Whistle). However, since end-to-end security and complete privacy protection are complicated topics, it remains to be seen how secure and good these apps will be initially (UPDATE: At least Whistle seems not to be secure in its current version). In the meantime we expect the providers of established messaging services (at least the better ones) to improve their security and privacy features. From our point of view, security and strong data protection should be a standard for messaging apps, and not a feature.

Gaming and Public Chat Forums

Especially the Asian messaging providers have started to introduce games, third party services and public chat forums in their apps. This is basically the Facebook strategy: Building a platform for all apps and services, and trying to offer the user everything in one app. Users, who love games and public interest forums, will find a benefit from this approach. Still, for many users these apps will become to complex and cluttered with features, and they will prefer the more simple, focussed and let’s say traditional messaging apps.

Business Messaging Apps

For the business communication with colleagues and teams, messaging apps are becoming more and more important. Of course businesses could use traditional instant messaging apps like Skype, ICQ, etc. or the newer versions of Whatsapp, Viber, Line and Co., but often a dedicated messaging app for business communication has advantages.

Desktop and Mobile Apps Offered

Most business messaging apps not only offer mobile apps for iPhone and Android, but a desktop client to enable easy access to your messages. This is generally great, but requires a good synchronization mechanism between the various clients and the server. Besides push notifications for new messages need to be delivered reliably.

Since some of the business messaging apps have their origin on the desktop, reliable push notifications and synchronization are often not certain. So if you select a provider, make sure to test these features beforehand.

Video Communication and File Sharing

Business messaging apps enables users to have 1-to-1 and group chats. Several apps also feature persistent chat rooms for individual projects, teams or entire departments. In order to serve more of your business communication needs, some of these messaging apps offer the ability to share files, and some even enable video meetings for small teams.

Strong Security and Privacy Required

Nearly all business messaging apps use an SSL encryption for the transmission of the messages, and promote the security of their services as being as safe as a bank. However, be aware that there still can be strong differences in the security and privacy features of the various providers. Depending on the level of security you need, you might want to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is only the transmission of the messages encrypted, or are the messages themselves encrypted as well?
  2. Are the messages stored encrypted on the server? And can the provider read the messages?
  3. Do user accounts and profiles get anonymized, so their privacy is fully protected? And if not, what user data gets stored?
  4. How regularly does the provider backup data, and on the other hand delete delivered messages from the server?
  5. Is the data stored in the USA (where it can be easily accessed by government agencies), in Europe (where data protection is much stronger) or elsewhere?
  6. From what country is the provider of the business messaging app, and what are the underlying data protection laws?

Relatively Young Market

Yet, there are not many dedicated and capable business messaging apps available. Several providers have started out with desktop and web apps and then extended into mobile (e.g. the business messaging services YammerHallHipChat and OneTeam). In addition, some new providers with a focus on mobile are about to launch: GoComm will focus on messaging for mobile workforces, and Teamwire will offer secure enterprise group messaging for instant, personal and private messaging with teams and colleagues.

Overall, it is still a relatively young market and it will be interesting to see, how business messaging apps will simplify and improve the communication as well as help to grow the productivity of a workplace.

How Messaging Apps Are Becoming The New Social Networks

While the media mainly discusses the strong growth and influence of social media, many people fail to realize a far bigger trend: The incredible growth of messaging apps, and how they are increasingly replacing traditional social networks.

Many messaging apps are strongly growing and have more than 100 millions users

Each mobile messaging app like WeChat, Line, Whatsapp, Kakao Talk and Viber has 100 million or even more users. Besides there are a lot of smaller and often more specialized players like Grouptime, Kik, Snapchat, etc. All of them not only seem to be strongly growing, but also rise at a much higher rate than the big social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Co.

The daily usage of messaging apps is among the highest of all mobile apps. Users open their messaging apps several times a day, and often send hundred messages or more. Compare that with social networks: They are still without doubt a place of regular visits, however, more for content browsing and entertainment (and killing boredom as some say). The intensive communication with close friends and family, something social networks were used for in the past, is handled increasingly by messaging apps. And if you believe the latest studies, the usage of social networks is clearly on the decline.

Group chats replace social networks for sharing with family and friends

While instant messaging apps have been primarily used for 1-to-1 conversations, some of them have started to offer simple group chat features. People quickly have found out that, in addition to straight forward communication and coordination, these group chats are great for quick photo sharing with family and friends. Especially because group chats are so easy to set up and completely private, they offer the right environment for private sharing without the complicated settings on social networks.

Some newer messaging apps like Grouptime now completely concentrate on group messaging and private sharing. You can share with one-click with personal groups like family and friends. The messaging inbox works with posts with nice, large photos like a social network, but in real-time like a messaging app. It is basically a real-time private social network.

Other apps like Line offer a status feed like on Facebook. Well, in this case there are no privacy controls, and it is not different than your well-known social network, so the benefit is quite limited. However, it shows how some messaging apps further enter the social networking realm.

Sharing of digital content with messaging apps gets better and better

Messaging apps don’t stop with group photo sharing. All content sharing features are widely improved: Users now can easily exchange whereabouts via location databases, videos, voice messages, calendar dates, website links and even YouTube videos. Furthermore, some apps allow you to share multiple content items and photos at once (Grouptime is a good example again).

In the future it is expected that even more content types can be shared, and also the integration in various third party apps and services will become common. In regard to innovative features, messaging apps have already taken the lead. Basically, all functions (including “liking”) of social networks and much more will be possible with the leading messaging apps.

Private sharing is strongly on the rise and far larger than public sharing

A recent study estimates that sharing via Facebook and Twitter is only the tip of the iceberg, and private sharing via instant messaging and email nowadays accounts for ca. 70% of all sharing. With the unstoppable rise of mobile messaging apps these figures will be outdated soon, and Facebook and Twitter will be further challenged. Even Mark Zuckerberg noted in a recent article, that sharing with smaller, private groups is the biggest trend Facebook is seeing.

How the social networking giants will react is unclear, but one thing is sure: Messaging apps will be the primary way to easily, privately and securely share with family and friends.

Private Messaging and Sharing Apps

In general people seem to become more and more privacy aware. While a couple of years ago social media and its related public sharing were a major trend, nowadays a kind of reverse trend has emerged. On the one hand people seem less comfortable with sharing everything with their hundreds of followers and friends on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, but complicated privacy settings make more private sharing a nuisance. And on the other hand people seem more worried what happens with their content and data, and how it might be used by these networks without their consent. Thus in order to stay in control of their privacy, people increasingly turn to messaging apps which can make it quite easy to privately share. There are some good examples of how messaging apps can help people to protect their privacy, and also some issues to be aware of.

“Self-destructing” Content

I guess an extreme example of privacy protection with a messaging app is Snapchat, which is mainly used for photo sharing. The sender determines how long a photo is visible for the recipient (the maximum viewing time is 10 seconds), and afterwards the photo is not viewable anymore. The app is a big hit among teens, who use the app for sometimes doubtful use cases, which are also referred to “sexting”. Having said that, while sharing “self-destructing” images seems to do a job, for sharing everything else (text messages, locations, links, etc.) the app is useless. Besides the user interface is very basic, and people who look for beautiful design will be rather turned off. Facebook already cloned Snapchat with the app “Poke”. However, Facebook is probably not the right choice when it comes to privacy. We generally expect that “self-destructing” content will become a feature of messaging apps and social networks. So for those of you who don’t need this right away, simply wait a couple of months and your messaging app of choice will probably include such a feature.

Private Sharing and Group Messaging

Most messaging apps (e.g. Whatsapp, Line, WeChat, ChatOn, FB Messenger) have group chats by now, which more and more people also use for private sharing with groups. Well, group chats are pretty useful for coordinating, but for private sharing they are far from perfect. First, the chats with the bubble style are not clearly laid out and can be confusing, especially when it comes to sharing content like photos, links and locations. And second, setting up and inviting people to a group is still too complicated and not really adequate for personal sharing. Our preferred solution for private group sharing is an app called Grouptime, which is a private social network that combines group messaging and classical social network sharing. With its beautiful and simple to use interface, the app makes it actually really easy to personally share all kinds of content with the people you choose. Besides grouptime allows you to share multiple photos at once, and displays large images of contents like locations, links and photos. Due to a recent blog post it seems that privacy protection is very important to Grouptime. So if your looking for an app to privately share with family and close friends, and haven’t tried Grouptime, check it out.

No Advertising

This is more a side note, but an important one: Messaging apps that include advertisements, normally need to analyze and mine user data for better targeting of ads. So if your privacy is important to you, make sure to choose a messaging app with a business model that does not rely on advertising.

European Provider

We would choose an European messaging app (e.g. Grouptime, Moped, Threema, Yuilop, MySMS, etc.), simply because Europe has by far the best law enforcement and civil rights when it comes to privacy and data protection. Especially the US-based services were not always the best examples when it came to security and privacy protection in recent years….not to mention the lack of privacy laws in the US.

Encrypted Communication

While for many users encryption is not a must-have feature (who wants to spy on me anyway?), nowadays it is often a standard practice among messaging apps to encrypt the communication (e.g. via https) as well as a users data. If this is a must-have feature for private sharing for you, simply check with your messaging app of choice. The required information is normally available directly on a providers website.

Recently Updated Messaging Apps

In the last weeks several instant messaging providers launched major updates of their apps. Most apps simply seem to copy other messaging apps or improve the more common features. Some messaging services seem to focus more on certain use cases and try to follow new trends.

Grouptime

Grouptime launched a major update of their iPhone version last week. This app is a good example of a differentiated use case. So if your are looking for a group messaging app where you can privately share with family or best friends with one click, Grouptime will probably the right solution for you. While you can use the app for 1:1 instant messaging, it is obvious that Grouptime concentrates on group messaging and group sharing. The redesigned message inbox of the new version of the app reminds me of a private Facebook feed, and thus their idea of a real-time private social network becomes evident.

The update includes new features, redesigns, performance improvements, iOS6 readiness, and many bug fixes. My impression is, that Grouptime has developed a beautiful, stable and well performing app.

Grouptime - Private Social Network

Group Messaging and Private Sharing with Grouptime

Kik Messenger

Kik introduced “Kik Cards” in their recent app updates. Kik Cards are optional features e.g. to share YouTube videos, find and share images and edit sketches. The advantage of this user interface design is that the app is kept simple. On the other hand some other messaging apps integrate these features simply as part of their attachments, so I am not sold on the idea of Kik Cards. It is probably their way to start monetizing third party services and applications being integrated into their service.

Kik Cards

Whatsapp

Especially in Europe Whatsapp has gotten a lot of bad press and negative feedback from customers, due to the lack of security of the service. For the last 12 months or so the leading instant messaging app has launched various updates to fix these security issues, but almost instantly security experts found new issues. No matter how important these security issues are for the average user of an instant messaging app. Still, it is kind ridiculous that the current market leader in the messaging space doesn’t manage to fix these things entirely.

Whatsapp optimized their iPhone app for iOS6 and included some minor bug fixes in the recent update. Their Android update focused on fixing security issues. Let’s see how many days it takes this time until someone finds a way to break into an account.

Others

Line, Kakao Talk and WeChat – the Whatsapp clones from Japan, South Korea and China repectively – all recently launched updates for their messaging apps. In addition to instant messaging, some of these apps offer VOIP calling, a social network feed like Facebook, integration of third party services and many more features. While all these messaging apps are very popular in Asia, the amount of features make them very cluttered and some users might find them confusing. Personally I am more a fan of messaging apps with a clean design, a clear use case and a simple user interface like Kik and Grouptime.