Oh yeah, it indeed is late in the day to write something about Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp. Several hundreds of articles have been written on this topic. While this is not entirely about that, it definitely served as an inspiration to take a step back and see how communication services evolved in the Internet era.
That which started off as an auxiliary service of IMs
Apart from the granddaddy of Internet communication service, that is ’email’, the one that held steady for long was ‘Instant Messaging’.
While it was going strong, one small auxiliary service offered by the IMs, arguably, caused an explosion of various services that we see today. That of letting you put in ‘custom presence’ messages instead of the usual Available / Busy / Idle options. Presence messages also showed the song that was currently being played in the system. People started using this ‘presence’ messages as an expression of themselves, their personality and their mood.
This was the set of people that moved to MySpace/Orkut and then to Facebook to put their ‘Status’ messages. The more serious types moved to Twitter. And then they evolved into sharing stuff more than just status – links to news, articles and photos and so on. Facebook became the go-to place for the ‘personal’ front while Twitter became the ‘professional’ / ‘serious’ front (though you can see examples of the reverse as well at times). Evolution of Twitter’s homepage showcases this (from ‘What are you doing‘ in 2006 to ‘Share & discover what is happening right now‘ to ‘The best way to discover what is happening in your world‘ to ‘Follow your interest‘ to finally ‘ Start a conversation, explore your interests, and be in the know‘ in 2014)
In all cases, you can argue that it continued to be a form of ‘self-expression’ (“see, these are the kind of articles I read“; “see, this is how funny I can be” and so on). Over time, with the smartphone revolution kicking in, photo sharing became the most important part of this ‘self-expression’. Instagrams and Snapchats became the order of the day.
What happened to the primary use case of IMs
If you had carefully noticed, the secondary / auxiliary use case of the IM clients became the primary use case of all these services. The primary use case (actually chatting with others) remained with the IM clients till the smartphone revolution came about. With smartphone penetration increasing and 3G data usage spreading, the use case of IM moved to the mobile, through the so called ‘Messaging Apps’.
People usually attribute SMS usage evolving to messaging apps but in my opinion, it is the IM users of desktop that moved to Messaging apps first. We can as well call them ‘Instant Messaging Apps’. No doubt SMS is a victim of this but that is more of a rub off effect. Further, we erroneously assume and speak as if WhatsApp was the first app that replaced messaging. It was not. It was BBM that first revolutionized this space. Whatsapp just extended it to multiple platforms and removed the barrier that BBM had – having to know the other person’s PIN. If you have someone’s phone number in your device, Whatsapp implicitly assumes you trust him/her so he/she becomes your Whatsapp contact as well. Mobile versions of desktop IM apps like Yahoo Messenger & Google Talk failed primarily because the phone had a more relevant social network (your Contacts app) than your address book in Gmail or Yahoo Mail.
A slightly related third use case is about ‘Trusted Group communications’. This is about sending messages to a group of friends not all of whom would be online at the same time. Regular IMs did not suffice and that is where we had services like Yahoo Groups. This was briefly taken over by Orkut and then Facebook (public groups & secret groups). But a lot of these groups are as well moving to messaging apps.
To summarize, this is what happened to the use cases of IM:
(1) “Broadcast messages to any friend / public” a.k.a “presence messages” use case made its way to social networks
(2) “Individual / Group messages” use case made its way to messaging apps
Now to the shouldacouldawoulda
I know it is easy for an arm chair analyst like yours truly to provide a hindsight “shoulda, coulda, woulda” analysis of the incumbents’ actions. But to get a perspective on the evolution, it is essential to take a step back. So let us indeed do it.
Yahoo had it all (users, a base product & resources) but lost out on social networking, photo sharing and then messaging apps. Their base products around mail, IM and Groups are languishing. Google attempted everything but could not get itself moving fast enough to beat others in all three – social networking, photo sharing & messaging. Twitter succeeded in broadcast messages of serious nature but did not succeed in others. Facebook became the monopoly of social networks but its attempts into photo sharing and messaging have been weak. Facebook could have broken its services into different apps and we may not have seen Instagrams and Whatsapps sprouting. Yahoo could have built a social network and we may not have had Facebook for that matter.
To be fair, most of the products offered most of these services in some form. They just were unable to move from their core. For example, Facebook always had a messaging section. Twitter has had DMs. But they were restricted. Facebook messenger is usable only if the other party is your Facebook friend. For DM-ing someone, they need to first follow you on Twitter. All these were cumbersome on a mobile phone – you open your Facebook/Twitter app, go to Messages/DM section and then start reading/writing messages (notifications notwithstanding, how annoying that is, is a topic for another day). When Twitter in face opened up DM to everyone recently, there was hue & cry from its core users. The same people are very much happy with becoming a Whatsapp contact of anyone who has them in his/her address book. (You will see the reason for this in the next section)
Facebook has now started ‘breaking’ the apps to fulfil separate needs. We now have ‘Messenger’ as a separate app, ‘Poke’ as an app to compete with Snapchat, ‘Paper’ for the core experience and so on. But will this strategy work?
Here is a reason why it may not: People start associating a product towards a particular need. They are indeed promiscuous and can switch to another product. But it is likely to a ‘new product’ and not to a product that is associated with another need. Facebook seems to be realizing this. That is why they have this ‘whack a mole’ strategy to eat up anything that becomes a hit (First acquiring Instagram, and then attempting to acquire Snapchat and then acquiring Whatsapp, apart from a few small acquisitions / acquihires like Snaptu).
This story is not over yet. We have the current successes of the likes of WeChat, Line, KakaoTalk, MXit and so on trying to be a lot more than messaging apps – they want to be a social network, social media newsfeed, a gaming platform, content delivery platform plus a messaging app with voice features (hello Skype!) all rolled into one.
Should they do this? Or should they just focus on their core and build separate apps for other needs? Without these dilemmas for the incumbents, there would be no disruption theory, ain’t it?
Karthik has been working in the technology product space at Bangalore since Y2K and claims to have built experience in management of 4Ps : Product, Partner, Project & People. He currently manages a few products for Vodafone in Emerging Markets. Beyond work, he blogs on technology, write stories in English & Tamil and is a member of the Bangalore chapter of Mensa. Needless to say, all that he expresses here are his personal opinion and does not reflect his employer’s.