The Real Cost of Free Messaging Apps

Currently there are basically two types of messaging apps in the market: The first type has to be bought by the user for a license fee or a yearly subscription. The pricing is normally in the $1-2 range. The second type is free, and either comes with advertising or various in-app purchases to get the full functionality of the app.

Free messaging apps are users first choice

Needless to say, a user often goes for the free messaging apps. Especially if the feature set of the messaging app is competitive and compelling, only having to deal with ads seems pretty cheap initially. Besides many free messaging apps in the first 1-2 year after their launch don’t even show advertising to increase user growth. But make no mistake, sooner or later you will pay the price.

If you are lucky, a free messaging app later decides to monetize via an affordable subscription. If you are unlucky, you will get ads, which will finally end your privacy and data protection. To better target ads, providers of messaging apps need as much information as possible about their users. If you write a message to a friend, that you want to go shopping for some shoes, wouldn’t it be great to get some ads displayed about some shoe shops in your neighborhood? Well, probably you wouldn’t like it. However, for the messaging app provider these would be highly paid ads.

Advertising requires analysis of a user’s content and data 

The question will be, where to draw the line between privacy and data protection of the users on the one hand, and the monetization interests and required user information for targeting of ads on the other hand. In doubt many providers of free messaging apps will go for the higher monetization and against the user’s privacy. Which means: They will analyze your messaging content and often even hand it over to third parties.

That’s why I suggest, that as a user you should try to understand the revenue model, privacy and data protection of the messaging app you are going to use right from the start. Changing the messaging app and moving all your friends to another service later, is no fun at all and would incur a high additional cost.

Some messaging apps have a clear commitment to privacy and data protection

The good news is: There are some messaging apps that make a clear commitment to privacy, data protection and against advertising, and monetize via in-app purchases or with an affordable yearly subscription. Good examples are Whatsapp (SMS alternative) and Grouptime (great for group messaging and sharing).

As of today many things described here, are not yet visible for users of messaging apps. Nevertheless, this is the future, because all free messaging apps have to make a profit somehow. You can decide, if it happens at the cost of your privacy.

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Facebook Home offers persistent messaging with Chat Heads

Last weeks messaging news was definitely the announcement of Facebook Home with its Chat Heads feature. It allows you to instant message with friends, regardless of what app you are already in on your Android phone at any point.

Avatars for quick access to chats

So if you are e.g. browsing the web or playing a game, and are receiving a message from a friend, an avatar will appear on the screen with your friend’s Facebook profile picture. By tapping on it, a messaging window will open, that allows users to chat like in other standard texting or messaging apps.

Facebook Home with Chat Heads Messaging

Facebook Home with Chat Heads Messaging

The advantage from Facebook’s point of view is that you don’t have to switch between apps, and go back to what you have been doing before immediately. So for ongoing conversations this messaging feature provides fast access. The downside of the messaging feature of Facebook Home is, that some users will perceive it as quite intrusive, and won’t let them focus on what they are currently doing.

Privacy and data protection at risk

Besides, with installing “Home” on your Android device you will provide Facebook with even more information for targeting its ads. Facebook will probably not hesitate to collect any information they might redeem necessary for the growth of their business. For users worried about privacy and data protection, Chat Heads is probably not the right messaging app.

Looking at the notification systems of iPhone and Android, which already work quite similar on many devices, we expect standard features and messaging apps like Chat Heads pre-installed by the device makers (e.g. Apple, Samsung, etc.).