Bryan Pelz was splitting his time between Vietnam and San Francisco when he began working on an idea for a new app called Klamr (pronounced "clamor"). He and his friends overseas had been using various over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps--Line, WhatsApp, and others--to chat with each other for years, but in the United States, SMS still reigns supreme.
Klamr is a brand-new social messaging app for iOS and Android that combines group chats with planning tools and location-based search. If you're planning a birthday party or a happy hour, Klamr will help you rope in your friends, pick a time and place, and hammer out the details.
Klamr and other apps of its ilk represent the next phase in mobile messaging: more visual, more interactive, and--let's be honest--more time-sucking than ever before. Social networks are getting in on the act, too, with Facebook and Path pushing group chats and stickers as a way to appeal to teens.
What's the appeal?
Over-the-top messaging apps have been growing in popularity for one very obvious reason: They're free. Unlike SMS texts, OTT messages aren't transmitted by your cell phone carrier and don't cost you a dime.
Some messaging apps are focused strictly on messages. WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Skype are dominating the OTT chatting space, and it looks like that will continue. But social messaging is on the rise, led by Asian users and U.S. teens.
"There's a lot of early adopters [in Asia] and a lot of new innovations in the mobile space come out in Asia," Pelz said. "Everyone I know is using multiple messaging apps. [They're] free, as opposed to SMS, but even more importantly, it's just that much more functional and socially expressive than SMS or a bare-bones messaging app like iMessage."
The space's biggest success story, the Japanese export Line, has 230 million users who send each other more than 1 billion stickers a day. That's not messages, just stickers: cute characters with expressive faces that Line's users send to communicate emotions without the strain of typing.
Line has become more of a platform with a roster of apps, like a Facebook-type Timeline for sharing photos and information with friends, a group chat function, a camera, and free games. The company makes money from sticker packs and in-app game purchases.
Line has plans to challenge Facebook for the attention of American users, who may find the app's biggest draws have already been replicated Stateside. Facebook and Path jumped on the sticker train immediately, and other U.S.-based social messaging apps like Tango quickly pivoted from straightforward chat functionality to offer group messaging and games, too.
Social messaging vs. social networking
Messaging apps, even ones with basic functionality, are racking up users worldwide. WhatsApp has 300 million monthly active users who send 11 billion messages per day, according to AllThingsD.
But it's unclear if American users want an all-in-one app that serves as a portal for chats, photos, calendars, games, and a social network. One of the most popular OTT messaging apps, Facebook Messenger, appeals to users because it's attached to a social network but is still a separate app. Facebook has the name recognition and critical mass that a startup social messaging app needs to carve out a niche in the space. Who wants to chat on an app that none of your friends use?
"Some of these apps that came on early, like WhatsApp, have a brand associated with it," said Gartner research director Brian Blau. "People come to the network, and there's a network effect. You're using it because your friends are using it. That's how these social networking apps got popular in the first place."
So for Line to take hold in the United States, or for Klamr to grow beyond a planning app with a messaging backbone, a mass of people need to choose to use those apps instead of, say, Facebook Messenger.
"It's going to take some amount of momentum to get people away from the social networks they use today," Blau said. "Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn--that's already a lot of messaging people do during the day. Will they want to add another one? We have a ways to go before we see some of these social chat networks really get a foothold."
The success of Snapchat, which seemed at first like a gimmicky app--disappearing messages!--with racy undertones, proves that at least teens are making room in their online social lives for more services if they prove to be cool. Snapchat is processing 350 million messages per day, a number that only continues to grow.
Tango is a Line-like app that is also building steam in the United States. More than 40 percent of its 140 million registered users are Americans, though the app is available in 212 countries. Like Line, Tango offers group chat and photo sharing, and the app recently became a games platform, a strategy it hopes will translate into big profits. Tango is capitalizing on a handful of major trends--mobile, social games, and messaging--while counting on a maybe not entirely accurate idea that teens are tired of Facebook.
"If you're a teenager, the last thing you want to do is be on a big social network your parents are on," said Tango cofounder Eric Setton. "We have the opportunity of becoming a really big social networking function for the next generation."