Most folks by now have had time to digest Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp. Such an attention-grabbing headline brought with it a wave of meta-analysis about the future of communication. I’ll leave my take on the messaging app wars themselves to another post, but there is more going on beneath the surface with messaging more broadly as a category of mobile activity.
Let’s take a look at the rollout of Snapchat’s creatively named “Chats” feature that launched not so long ago. Had it not been for Snapchat’s success with “Stories,” the press might have poo-poo’d “Chats” more vociferously, but even still coverage has centered mostly around its “lukewarm” reception with users (citing various engagement sources) and its clever UI. Fresh off of the WhatsApp acquisition, tech-watchers were highly skeptical that another icon dedicated to messaging would make the coveted leap to “homescreen status.” Simply put, how many messaging apps do you really need? Don’t we have WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger, and Viber for regular text/picture messaging? That’s the theory, anyhow.
The jury is still out on Chats adoption and stickiness at Snapchat. I haven’t seen any real numbers, but anecdotally some people seem to like it — especially for 3–5 responses to a Snap that then might transition to iMessage. General messaging functionality helps round out the Snapchat experience and enhances their core use cases while allowing Snapchat to dip its toes into adjacent areas. We also saw this earlier in the week with Pinterest rolling out messaging functionality. Pinners can now chat with each other within the framework of shared content. It is easy to see how adding this discussion element to Pinterest could drive more engagement and eyeball time.
This is the commoditization of messaging — and it is not limited to social media. A few weeks ago, I booked my first Airbnb when I visited some college friends in New York. Once I had made the reservation, I was pleasantly surprised to see the seamless flow into a chat with the renter where we ironed out logistics. An ODE (On-Demand Economy) player like Airbnb benefits greatly from rounding out its customer experience with this communication layer. The goal here is different than the social networks: to make the process as easy and seamless as possible so that the customer uses Airbnb for all of their future accomodations. The same means — messaging — being used for a different end.
That brings us to one of the sickest companies out there right now: Layer (@Layer). Layer is the self-described “open communications layer for the internet,” and it provides a set of tools for any developer to integrate messaging (text/pics/video) into their mobile app. They are all-in on the commoditization of messaging, and recently hosted a HackLayer hackathon where developers took their yet to be released SDK for a test drive. Check out a blog post from the company that talks about some of the winning projects and their view on the future of in-app communications. Layer is continuing this trend of the maturation of the ‘startup stack’ in a similar way to Stripe in the in-app mobile payments arena.
A gigantic chunk of what we do with apps involves other people. Talking to other people is a key activity that can be incorporated into a myriad of things. Two taps lets you switch apps, and today’s mobile app power user is so far only minimally annoyed by checking and using 4–5 messaging apps and 5–6 apps with messaging capabilities. I think that this decoupling and recoupling of features x, y and z with messaging is going to yield some really interesting results. In some sense, messaging has gone from being the ‘killer app’ of mobile to being a best practice or ‘killer feature.’