Messaging apps offer to do it all, for more money

Messaging apps do a lot more these days than send messages. Facebook’s Messenger app is the perfect example. Last week, the company added the ability to let Messengers users send and receive money. And on Wednesday, the company announced that users of its stand-alone Messenger app would be able to download new apps that add extra features.

Right now, those new features are mainly limited to more advanced messages, like text messages that turn into songs or one that lets you animate selfie photos. But the company announced tools for developers to build in even more capabilities, plus partnerships with stores, so that users can track online purchases and packages in Messenger.

Such moves are part of a trend toward messaging apps becoming do-it-all services. The model, in many ways, comes from the messaging giants popular in China and Japan: Tencent’s WeChat (known as Weixin in China), and Line, which became a powerful alternative to text messaging after the devastating Tohoku earthquake of 2011.

Messaging apps

“Facebook or these messenger apps, they’re wondering, what’s their future?” said Brian Blau, a research director at the technology research firm Gartner. “How are they going to engage? Are they going to risk having all their users in one app basket? Wouldn’t it be better if they were more of a platform and could have users in all sorts of areas and have businesses come to rely on them?”

For users, beefier and more powerful messaging apps could be a logical extension of the activities they’re already doing - or the apps could quickly overwhelm. It all depends on execution, and WeChat and Line appear to be getting it right.

WeChat, which has some 500 million users worldwide, lets users make voice and video calls, communicate with groups of up to 500 people and send and receive money. But the app also includes a complete payments platform, like Apple Pay or the coming Samsung Pay, that lets people check out in stores and restaurants using the app, and also shop online.

And because WeChat is open to integration with all kinds of other apps, Tencent has encouraged developers to create the ability to build many other functions within the app. Now you can use WeChat to check into hotel rooms and use the app as a digital key, schedule doctor’s appointments and track prescriptions, buy train tickets, pay school tuition fees and order items for delivery. (The app Call a Chicken lets people order chicken dishes for delivery.)

Tencent has also created its own games for WeChat and has licensed TV and movies to stream within the app.

Similarly, Line handles messaging and voice, video games, mobile payments, TV shows and movie studios, ultrapopular stickers (that its users can create and sell on the platform), a taxi-calling service that rivals Uber and even a physical store in Tokyo. In the United States, messaging apps are moving slightly more slowly. Facebook Messenger is getting closer, with the new payments service and third-party app announcements. You can make voice calls with the app over both Wi-Fi or a cellular data connection - although there’s no video calling and its sticker collection left a lot to be desired, at least for now.

The new apps introduced by Facebook this week include several sticker apps, which have proved popular in WeChat and Line. Users can also download a weather app from the Weather Channel and will have the ability to send video messages with special effects attached.

Snapchat, which made its name with disappearing messages, also has a host of new features. The app has a payment service called Snapcash, and has a more traditional chat service as well as live video chat.

More recently, the company has moved toward becoming a media platform. Snapchat lets users create short videologues called Snapchat Stories. It has also partnered with media companies for its Snapchat Discover feature, which delivers short videos and even long text stories from companies like CNN, National Geographic and Vice.

WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook, keeps it simple. The app is slowly rolling out voice calling features to Android users, but does little else besides chat, video and photo sharing, and audio messages. That simplicity and focus on messaging with no texting charges (or ads) has made it the most popular messaging app in the world, with more than 600 million users.

So that raises the question: Does a messaging app need to do it all? Blau at Gartner said e-commerce in an app, for example, “doesn’t feel like a natural progression.”

“We’ve always thought that e-commerce should fit in with social applications. It’s marketing; there might be impulse-buy opportunities,” he said. “But are social networks ready for a shopping mall experience?”

On the other hand, mobile payments make more sense because, he said, “you’re standing in line at the grocery store; you’re chatting on WeChat, and you press the payment app and you pay.”

“You’re using the app already,” Blau said. “It’s what you’re already doing.” It’s true that we’re spending more time in messaging apps, but grafting on more features just because these apps have our attention could get annoying - especially if the features don’t work well or they make the overall experience cluttered and confusing. After all, when Facebook split off Messenger from the core Facebook mobile app, it said it did so to make both apps work well with fewer distractions. Throwing in third-party features like payments, hotel reservations, games or stickers might just add clutter.

Still, consumers may have no choice in the matter since more features are a way for companies like Facebook to make money off messaging.

WhatsApp may be simple, but when Facebook acquired it for $19 billion in 2014, many analysts wondered how the company would ever recoup those costs. Facebook Messenger doesn’t make any money for the company, despite the engineering and marketing effort involved in spinning it off into its own app.

On the other hand, Line reported $656 million in revenue in 2014, mainly on games, stickers and advertising, according to its earnings releases. Tencent reported earnings of $945 million last year, buoyed in large part by sales of games, stickers and an increasing numbers of ads in WeChat.

As messaging apps evolve, it’s likely we’ll see Facebook and Snapchat experiment with ways to keep their users interested and also reap bigger profits.

“To a large degree, some of these features are experimental,” Blau said. “That’s OK. They’ll see which ones will stick, and oftentimes we’ll see features go away.”

So you might discover that you love being able to buy games, pay for groceries and call a taxi all while chatting with your friends, but prepare for some chaos while these apps figure out just what they want to be when they grow up.

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