What We Hate (and Love) About Chat Apps

Facebook Messenger

Source: Messenger.com

As messaging apps add more features and bundle in more functionality, they give users more reasons to both love and hate them. Molly Wood writes for The New York Times that messaging apps can now do a lot more than just send messages, and in some cases their newfound functionality risks cluttering the simple experiences that their users have come to love. Facebook Messenger, for example, now not only enables users to send and receive payments, but will integrate third-party apps that add new features and functions to the app. The features, as the platform launches, are primarily limited to tools that enhance the messages users already send, but developers can build in even more advanced capabilities, and Facebook is beginning to partner with stores so that users can track orders and communicate with retailers right in Messenger.

Wood points out that Facebook’s moves coincide with the broader trend toward making messaging platforms into “do-it-all” services. The model was established by Asia’s messaging giants, including apps like Tencent’s WeChat or Line, which look to assure their future by making themselves into platforms. WeChat, which has 500 million users worldwide, enables its users to make voice and video calls, communicate with groups of up to 500 people, send and receive peer-to-peer payments, and take advantage of a complete payments platform to check out in stores and restaurants or shop online.

WeChat is also open to integration with third-party apps, with Tencent encouraging developers to built other functions into the platform, and Tencent has created its own games and licensed TV and movies to stream within WeChat. Similarly, Line offers messaging and voice, video games, mobile payments, TV shows, movies, stickers, and a taxi-calling service that rivals Uber.

But in the United States, messaging apps are moving at a slower pace. Facebook Messenger is catching up, with its new payments service and third-party app integrations. But while you can make voice calls with the app, both over WiFi and with a data connection, there’s no video calling. Snapchat, which built its brand on the appeal of ephemeral messaging, has a payment service called Snapcash, plus a traditional chat service and video chat capabilities. Snapchat is also moving to become a media platform; its users can create short videologues called Stories, and it’s partnered with media companies for Snapchat Discover, a feature that delivers editions of videos and text stories from organizations like CNN, National Geographic, Yahoo News, and Vice.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

What does a messaging app really need to do?

On the other hand, WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, has so far kept things simple. It’s beginning to roll out voice calling features to its Android users, but it has few features other than chat, video and photo sharing, and audio messages. Its focus on messaging with no texting charges made it the most popular messaging app in the world, with 700 million users worldwide. TechCrunch’s Jon Russell wrote that Facebook’s Messenger Platform makes WhatsApp’s path forward clearer than ever. While Messenger becomes a platform, WhatsApp will continue to be a communication utility. Russell thinks that there’s “a strong case” to continue offering simple chat options for users who would prioritize ease of use over new features and expanded cabinets (or those using low-end devices or dealing with spotty data connections).

And Wood asks an interesting question: Does a messaging app really need to do it all? While users are spending an increasing amount of time in messaging apps, continually adding on more features just because apps have users’ attention will likely lead to apps being cluttered, confusing, or, at the very least, annoying. When Facebook split off  Messenger from its main app, it did so to minimize the distractions in each app and make them both work better for users. Indiscriminately throwing in new features could degrade the user experience by adding clutter.

However, companies going for more features rather than fewer, seems likely because they offer new opportunities for revenue. Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, prompting analysts to wonder how it would ever recoup those costs, and Facebook Messenger doesn’t make any money for the company. Conversely, Line reported $656 million in revenue in 2014 — primarily from games, stickers, and advertising — and Tencent reported earnings of $945 million last year, driven by sales of games, stickers, and ads in WeChat.

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Bundling and unbundling

In the future, Facebook and Snapchat are likely to experiment with features that simultaneously keep users interested and attract bigger profits. Re/code recently reported that Snapchat Discover ad pricing runs about $100 for every thousand views, a rate that’s approximately twice what a premium video publisher gets and many times what a web publisher can command. Sources say that on average, publishers get 10 cents a view for their ads, which are seen anywhere from 500,000 times a day to a million times a day — meaning that publishers command $50,000 to $100,000 a day for the videos and text stories they share on the Discover platform. The publishers and Snapchat split the revenue differently based on who sells the ad; if a publisher sells the ad space, they get 70% of the revenue, and if Snapchat sells the ad, the revenue is split evenly.

As tech analyst and Andreessen Horowitz venture capitalist Benedict Evans wrote last summer, smartphones have driven the “unbundling” of services over the past few years. Single-purpose apps have had an advantage on mobile interfaces. While on desktop, you can add a feature as a tab in your site’s navigation, and clicking that is easier than navigating to another website, there’s often little room for links to more features in an app except in the “hamburger” menu. And another app is just two taps away. This leads startups to unbundle features from larger companies’ products, and leads those companies themselves to unbundle their apps into a constellation of single-function apps. Evans notes of the transition that it changes the layers of aggregation:

By default, the iOS and Android interfaces aggregate at the app launcher level — you have a screen of different icons for different services, though to some extent notifications are becoming another OS-level aggregation. Anything that hasn’t been unbundled from the web is in the browser, where it is in turn aggregated by Google. Apps like WeChat and Baidu Maps move the service aggregation layer up the stack from the home screen, bundling it within a single app. Conversely Siri and Google Now (and arguably Microsoft’s Live tiles) are in different ways about moving it down the stack into an OS-level service.

Evans notes that changing the aggregation model also changes the way users discover new apps or new features. “In an app with only one or two features it’s easy to see what you can do, but hard to discover that app in the first place. Conversely in an app with hundreds of millions of users but also lots of integrated features, feature discovery becomes the challenge, and the opportunity.” It’s possible to bundle more features into apps — like Facebook Messenger — that have wide distribution, but both practicality and ease of discovery limit the number of features that can be added. If apps, like messaging apps, don’t bundle, then their features are easy to discover, given that their apps will have only one feature, but getting new users to discover the app is much more difficult. And adding new features to what began as a single-purpose app can offer lucrative new options for monetization, as Snapchat discovered.

Whether messaging apps add more features to their platforms or keep things simple, some users will be happy and others will be dissatisfied with the changes. Messaging apps, in particular, have to navigate a challenging path forward as they look to strike a balance between simple and full-featured apps. They’ll look to provide an assortment of features that users need to become more central to their mobile lives, without annoying or alienating them in the process.

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