The Messaging App Clones of Mobile Network Operators

The billions of dollars of revenues of mobile network operators from SMS have been strongly declining in the last 2-3 years. Especially in European and Asian countries where flat rates for texting are less common, users have quickly adopted over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps to avoid costs. As of today far more messages are sent with Whatsapp, Line, Kakao Talk, Viber, etc. than by traditional texting/SMS of mobile network operators.

Clones of leading messaging apps

Trying to counteract this trend many mobile network operators have launched their own messaging apps in recent months. Telefonica launched TuMe, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom started to offer Joyn, and this week Swisscom followed with iO. There are several more examples like these. All of these messaging apps have one thing in common: They are more or less clones of the leading messaging apps.

These clones should basically replace your standard messaging app on your mobile device and offer some additional features. With the mobile network operator apps you can send text messages and exchange single photos. Some of them feature location attachments and voice messages as well as simple group chats. VOIP calls and video chats are also available on some of these apps.

Currently minor performance and no new features

From a user interface and design perspective TuMe and iO look solid, while Joyn shows a very basic and text-centric design. From a performance perspective most of them are still buggy and not the fastest messaging apps. However, the apps are still pretty new and over time this will hopefully change.

TuMe App

Joyn App

Initially free of charge with additional features coming at cost

The apps are a free download. The usage of messaging features should be free of charge, but this could depend on your tariff and on the mobile network operator (so if you decide to use one of the apps, make sure you check). VOIP and video chat features should be expected to come at a cost sooner or later.

Overall, the messaging apps of mobile network operators offer nothing new or special. With the current performance and features of these apps, there are no reasons for users to switch. Further, the innovation in the instant messaging space is still expected from the market leaders. And the clones will only follow the herd.

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Google Hangouts – Another Standard Messaging App

Google recently launched Hangouts for iOS and Android as a replacement for Google Talk and several other messaging projects. To keep it short: Except for the group video chat feature, the app is more or less like every other mainstream messaging app.

Google Hangouts App

Standard messaging app with simple and clean interface

Hangouts has a simple and clean interface. If you know how to use your texting app or are familar with Whatsapp, Line, Skype, etc., the UI will be straightforward for you. The new Hangout screen with the large photos of your favorite contacts is nice.

In addition to text, so far users can only exchange photos. However, it is quite likely that other digital contents like locations, voice messages, video, contacts, etc. will be available in the future (if Hangouts wants to gain a minimal market share only, they will need these features…most of their major competitors have them).

Group chats with video feature

Like most messaging apps nowadays Hangouts offers group chats. However, unlike other messaging apps Hangouts also features video group chats where you can chat with up to 10 friends.

The current versions for iPhone and Android have several bugs and performance issues (e.g. video chat crashes the app, and also the audio seems delayed quite often). Overall, except for the video chat maybe, we don’t see a need to use Hangouts. There are too many other similar, but currently better performing messaging apps out there.

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.

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.).

Facebook Messenger 2.0 for iPhone

Facebook just unveiled a major update for its Messenger for iOS. The Facebook Messenger version 2.0 makes it compatible with iOS6 and iPhone 5, and introduces a couple of new features.

The new version 2.0 of Facebook Messenger for iOS enables users to swipe left, to immediately see which friends are online and available for messaging. Friends can be made favorites to appear at the top of the friend list for quick access. Just like the web interface, you can see who in your thread has viewed your message and when she read it. I guess, some people will see this feature as an advantage while others will believe its an intrusion into their privacy.

The design of the chats has been changed to typical chat bubbles, making conversations look more like text message exchanges than email. Facebook Messenger also offers a list of emoticons that are compatible with Facebook Messenger for those who like reliving the good old instant messaging days.

Generally we like the simple and clean user interface of the new Facebook Messenger 2.0. Besides the app is pretty fast and works stable so far. However, this version moves the Facebook Messenger more into a good texting alternative and tries to position itself as a leading 1:1 instant messaging app (like Whatsapp, Kik Messenger and ChatOn), but makes it less good for group messaging and sharing (where we see dedicated apps like Grouptime in the lead).

You can download the new version for free from iTunes.

Private and Secure Messaging Apps

Privacy, data protection and secure communication are always hot topics in the instant messaging and social networking world. Sometimes the issues at hand are greatly exaggerated by the media, however, quite often messaging apps have security and privacy flaws which users should be aware of. There aren’t many messaging apps which serve as a good example of how to protect as user’s privacy and personal data. That’s why today I want to take a closer look which messaging apps offer secure communication.

Market leader of messaging apps does not serve as a good example

One of the market leading messaging apps, Whatsapp, is definitely not a good example when it comes to protecting a users privacy. Whatsapp has had several security issues in the past. For years on most devices a user’s personal data, content and address book have been transmitted to the server unencrypted. Whatsapp has used HTTPS, but then has sent messages and content unencrypted, and even your ID visible in plain text. Thus in Wi-Fi networks it has been very easy for others to intercept a user’s data and to follow conversations. Actually there is even an Android app called “Whatsapp Sniffer” which allows to easily scan other people’s conversations in the same Wi-Fi. Only recently Whatsapp said to have closed these encryption issues. However, with millions of clients and different version out in the market, it will take a longer time till the existing security issues are really closed. And it remains to be seen if this encryption is a save one at all. Besides Whatsapp is an American company whose privacy and data protection enforcements are generally weak. From a market leading messaging app with millions of users I would have expected a better security and privacy concept.

European messaging apps better for privacy and data protection

Actually for better privacy and data protection it might be worth looking at European messaging apps, which have much stronger legal requirements in regard to protecting a user’s data. So far a good example is Grouptime from Germany. The Germans have some of the strongest data protection legislation in the world, and regular investigate and challenge the policies and practices of Facebook, Google and the like. Grouptime seems to completely anonymize your personal data and use secure encryption and transmission methods. In addition, the messaging app aims to provide an easy to use private messaging and sharing service by default, so the app has a simple privacy concept by design where no complicated settings are required. For further details read one of Grouptime‘s last blog posts how they protect your privacy and data.

Facebook Messenger and iMessage seem to have flaws 

One would think that Apple’s iMessage is generally safe. The recent SMS spoofing issues show that privacy flaws currently exist, and also there have been some other smaller security issues with iMessage in the past. I guess, since iMessage and iCloud are rather new services, these issues will be solved by Apple soon. And one of the good things of iMessage is, that data is transmitted encrypted. However, the question for me is, to what degree my messaging data is really anonymized in Apple’s iCloud? Probably it isn’t encrypted on iCloud.

The Facebook Messenger is also not a good reference for a secure and private messaging app. Well, Facebook alone has already enough flaws when it comes to privacy and data protection. Recently though, it became apparent that Facebook seems to regularly scan your messages for specific keywords.

There are lots of other messaging apps out there. In general, I would say that smaller messaging apps are more likely to have security flaws, that are yet undetected, and that European providers offer better data protection (like e.g. Grouptime). Anyway, SSL encryption (https) should be a standard for messaging apps to provide privacy and security for their users. I will do some more research, and will follow up with more news on that topic in the near term.

Messaging Apps Trends and Innovations

As announced in my last post, today I want to take a closer look at important trends and innovation among messaging apps for iPhone and Android. If you analyze the competitive landscape of instant messaging apps, you will see that most apps innovate and move in a similar direction. Many apps are simply copying the market leaders and then there is not at lot of innovation. However, there are some pretty interesting innovations differentiating at least some instant messaging apps from the mainstream. Anyway here are the current trends among messaging apps:

Group Messaging and Group Chats

Last year the popular group messaging trend started with apps like Beluga (acquired by Facebook and is now the Facebook Messenger) and GroupMe (acquired by Skype). By now most messaging apps offer at least group chats. Sometimes the group chats could be easier to set up, and often the existing functionality and user interface of an instant messaging app are simply not enough for good group messaging. I believe the group messaging trend is still young and we will see more innovation in that space. Grouptime for example is a relatively new group messaging app that behaves like a private social network, and combines instant messaging and group sharing. With an app like Grouptime you can already easily group chat and share with private groups.

Better Photo Sharing

Photo sharing with messaging apps is a very common and popular use case. Several apps now give users an overview of all the shared photos in a chat (e.g. Whatsapp, ChatON). To enable users to more easily share photos, messaging apps like Grouptime allow users to select and send multiple photos at once. This approach not only saves time, but more importantly shows the shared photos in a beautiful, nearly full-screen photo story view in the chat. Thus this is a great way to quickly share the photos from a party or event with friends and family, without the need to create a dedicated album on Facebook or a photo sharing app.

Enhanced Attachments

The attachments you can send and exchange with instant messaging apps on iPhone and Android are becoming more enhanced and comprehensive. So several messaging apps allow you to send new types of attachments like files, calendar dates, animations and locations from extensive third party databases (e.g. Foursquare or Google Maps). File sharing seems not very popular so far. Location sharing and calendar sharing of dates (with Grouptime or ChatON) however, are becoming interesting use cases. Some messaging apps (e.g. Moped) have started to integrate third party services like dropbox. The user interest in these kind of services remains to be seen.

Grouptime location sharing with an extensive venues database

Calling, Walkie-Talkie and VOIP Capabilities

Many messaging apps currently add calling, video chat and walkie-talkie capabilities. Users can thus simply call other users who are also using the app. Sometimes the connection is unstable, and often users require a WiFi-connection for a good quality transmittance…especially for video calls. Prominent examples for instant messaging apps with calling features are Viber, TuMe, TextMe and Kakao Talk, while Voxer is currently the most popular walkie-talkie app.

Differentiated Messaging Inbox Design

Most messaging apps simply have an inbox with rows for the different chats and always showing the last message. This is pretty much the standard design for the inbox. Some newer messaging apps are taking ideas from social networks and make the message inbox more visual. Grouptime for example has instant posts for real-time group messaging and sharing. So Grouptime will show you posts with photo and link previews in the inbox like a you are used to it from social networks. Another advantage of this approach is, that you can start new messaging threads for different topics. Another app, Touch, mixes shared photos and chats in the inbox. I find this approach a bit confusing, but maybe other users like it.

Simplicity

The better messaging apps for Android and iPhone try to get rid of unnecessary screens and tabs. Simplicity is key for ease of use, and many apps have just one core screen. All unimportant stuff should be hidden in settings or in tabular sidebars. Good examples for simplistic messaging apps following this trend are Kik Messenger, TuMe and Grouptime (especially for group messaging and sharing). Some examples for rather complicated user interfaces or unrequired tabs are PingMe, eBuddy XMS, AppMe and even Whatsapp.

Outlook

Generally I expect more messaging apps to innovate around the user interface in the next months. Also the attachments and group messaging will be further improved, and we will see more an more integrations into third party services. Besides it is quite likely that some messaging apps are going to target specific user segments and industries. The messaging market is so competitive, that differentiation and target user focus is the only way to success – for the user and the messaging app.