WhatsApp is big but other text messaging apps rule in Asia
WhatsApp is not the only text messaging app around. There are Asian rivals with growing user bases and quirky services. We look at some of WhatsApp's biggest competitors in Asia.
This Korean app offers free calls and messaging services. First released in 2010, it had reported 57 million registered users by August 2012. Its latest figures cite more than 130 million registered users, most of whom are in South Korea. They also report a growing number of users - three million at last count - in Vietnam, which led to recent rumours that Vietnamese telco Viettel might be interested in buying the company for US$5 billion (S$6.3 billion).
While its core services are calls and messages, KakaoTalk offers plenty of frills. For example, it has Instagram-like custom filters for photos and offers cute stickers and mood buttons for users to jazz up their messages. It also offers about 200 games that users can play with friends, a music room where they can share music and even an online retail store where fashionistas can shop for clothes and accessories. The company makes its money from games, advertising and sales of emoticons.
In South Korea, this service is so popular that even the office of President Park Geun Hye has opened an account with KakaoStory, the app's Facebook-style social networking service.
Last year, the company began targeting other markets in Indonesia and the Philippines, riding on the popularity of K-pop by engaging popular pop group Big Bang as their spokesman.
The Korea Times reported last week that the free app is being used surreptitiously in North Korea as well.
The Wall Street Journal also reported on Feb 19 that the company is close to an initial public offering that could value it at more than US$2 billion.
This Japan-based free service, which is also popular in Taiwan and Thailand, has more than 230 million registered users worldwide. According to the company, between 70 and 80 per cent of its users in those countries were active monthly users of the app in October 2013.
The service, which began in 2011, makes most of its revenue from in-app games-related purchases, about US$27 million a month. And those emoticon stickers? They make the company about US$10 million a month.
Like KakaoTalk and WeChat, Line's popularity in Asia is pegged to the fact that it offers more than just text messaging services. It is a games centre, a social networking service and media-sharing service. Its camera app even has "beauty" editing functions to help erase wrinkles.
While there were rumours of an IPO for the company, it told the Wall Street Journal this week that it had no such plans as yet. What sets Line apart from the other Asian messenger apps is its ambition - it is not just fighting KakaoTalk and WeChat for a slice of the Asian pie but looking to make headway in Latin America and Europe as well. To that end, it has recruited football clubs FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as tennis star Rafael Nadal to help promote its services. Nadal used the service to send messages and pictures throughout the US Open last year and celebrated his win by offering friends stickers. He probably helped push Line subscribers in Spain to more than 10 million.
This is China's version of WhatsApp, and its dominance in the market could prevent other players from gaining a foothold. Created in 2011 by Hong Kong-listed Chinese web giant Tencent, WeChat had 272 million active users according to its 2013 third quarter report. Tencent also owns 13 per cent of KakaoTalk.
Like its Asian competitors, it offers a range of other services. Besides selling emoticons and games, WeChat has also added mobile banking to its suite of services. It offered users the chance to send hongbao (traditional Chinese New Year red packet) money through their smartphones.
One hiccup to WeChat's expansion plans, however, could be China's draconian censorship regime. Within mainland China, WeChat censors communications on behalf of the Chinese government, which is mandatory in China. Its intimate nature - chatrooms are limited to 40 people and public pages can post only one message daily - has fueled its growth and WeChat was picked up quickly by tech-savvy dissidents as a way of circumventing tight controls on other platforms such as micro-blogging site Weibo.
WeChat's filtering and blocking became evident last year and it is now planning to build two platforms - one for mainland China and the other for the world so as to avoid censorship for international users.