Advertising professional Sarah hardly writes text messages anymore. Sitting in her swanky office in Gurgaon, near New Delhi, she speaks into her smartphone: "Where should we go for lunch today?" A few seconds later, the phone buzzes. She unlocks the screen to listen to her colleague's reply. She replies back, not by typing, but with a voice message, exchanging messages until they zero in on a place.
It is not just Sarah. There a few million in India who communicate like her these days, using instant messaging apps such as the Chinese WeChat and the US WhatsApp that allow users to send text and voice messages, snapshots and emoticons. Users have moved on from chat app aggregators such as Nimbuzz which lets users operate accounts with GChat (Google's messenger), Yahoo and MSN messengers, among others. The instant messenger apps operate across operating systems and instantly sync with a phone number.
While WatsApp, the first instant messaging app in India (apart from the erstwhile closed BBM on Blackberry phones) has had a headstart, other brands are catching up fast. And, a feature that is increasingly finding favour is voice messaging. Viber which had been launched in 2012 to challenge Skype is also being used with improvements in data bandwidth.
India, with its 900 million mobile users, including more than 70 million smartphone users, has increasingly taken to these apps. "This is the market for the future, though it would take time to monetise here," says a top executive with one of the app brands, responsible for the company's growth in India.
Nielsen Informate Mobile Insights (NIMA) says close to 90 per cent of smartphone users use a chat app. Usage of such apps among smartphone users has witnessed a significant increase from 70 per cent in November, 2012 to 86 per cent in November, 2013, according to NIMA.
The traction has led to the launch of Indian apps such as Hike, developed by Bharti SoftBank, which has a voice message option too. The Japanese Line, on the other hand, seems to have become popular due to its stickers and emoticons.
WhatsApp claims it has around 30 million active users in India out of its total 300 million users globally. It focuses on messaging and is partnering with telcos for customised data plans.
While China's WeChat declined to indicate how many users it has, industry sources put its active base under 30 million and growing fast. Tencent, which operates WeChat out of Guangdong Province, China, had said earlier that it has about 100 million registered users outside of China. Japan's Line, which entered India last year, has about 15 million users. Bharti's Hike has more than 5 million users.
Annie Mathew, director, alliances and business development, BlackBerry India says, "Within 60 days of making BBM cross-platform, BlackBerry had 40 million new Android and iOS users, besides its existing 60 million active BBM users worldwide." In order to push the recently launched cross-platform BBM, Blackberry has struck agreements with handset makers like Micromax, Celkon, Spice and Zen to get BBM pre-loaded on their smartphones. Line too has tied up exclusively with Sony for pre-installation on its handsets.
With most of these apps appealing to people between 15 and 35 years of age, brands latching on. While Blackberry plans to bring in its Channels for brands to reach out to its audience, some of these instant messengers have already got them on-board. WeChat has Official Accounts, under which it has authenticated accounts opened by retailers Cafe Coffee Day, Big Bazaar, TV channel Colors, theatre chain PVR Cinemas and online entertainment player Hungama. The brands send updates to users who subscribe to these accounts, not having to wait for mobile users to download their own apps.
To make up for lost time, WeChat and Line have brought out their marketing guns - TVCs feature soccer star Lionel Messi, and local actors Parineeti Chopra and Varun Dhawan (WeChat) and Katrina Kaif (Line).
For a burst of growth outside their home markets, region-specific animations for festivals like Diwali and integrations with Hindi movies too have been introduced.
WeChat is also growing into more than a WhatsApp challenger. Tencent has even integrated online payment into it in China. "In less than seven months since launch, WeChat has gone on to become the second-most downloaded app in India. This goes on to show the growing popularity of WeChat amongst the Indian youth," Rahul Razdan, president at 10c India Internet which is Tencent's Indian subsidiary, had said earlier.
Research firm Ovum had recently claimed that SMS growth has fallen from 14 per cent in 2011 to 8 per cent in 2013. By 2015, revenues from SMS will begin to plateau.