Released by Chinese web giant Tencent in 2011, WeChat is the largest standalone messaging app in the world by monthly users, with more than 500 million people, primarily in China, using the app on a regular basis. Originally confined to text messaging, WeChat has grown into an app platform, with gaming, payment, and social networking functions.
Asian messaging apps moving in on global tech giants' turf
Asian chat services KakaoTalk, Line and WeChat threaten to overturn the mobile order of things, usurping the role of Google, Apple, Amazon.com Facebook and telecommunications carriers as gatekeeper to the consumer.
Where these internet and telecommunications giants once controlled the lucrative choke-points of the industry, social messaging services are fast emerging as an alternative distribution channel for advertisements, software applications and goods and services.
For example, Tencent's WeChat allows its more than 270 million active users to book taxis, top up phone credit and even invest in wealth management products, while Naver's Line recently launched flash sales through its app in Thailand, with more than five million users signing up to buy L'Oreal lipsticks and other products.
The growing role of such apps as distribution channels was acknowledged by Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani when he explained why his company, Rakuten, Japan's biggest online commerce firm, bought messaging company Viber last week for US$900 million.
"In some smaller emerging markets, it was very difficult for Rakuten to go in, because of the lack of scale or distribution infrastructure," Mikitani said. "But after the acquisition of Viber, we can now go into those markets with our digital businesses."
More than half of all smartphone users are active users of mobile messaging apps, according to Analysys Mason. The volume of messages has already overtaken traditional SMS short messages, and will double again this year.
By offering compelling mixes of chat, downloadable icons and games, Line, KakaoTalk and WeChat have emerged as some of the most popular in Asia. Now these apps are leveraging their networks to become gatekeepers of their own.
Take South Korea, for example. In Google's app store, seven of the top 10 grossing apps are Kakao-branded, according to App Annie, a company that measures app usage. Kakao promotes them to users of its apps and takes a cut from the developer.
While Google and the carriers get a 30 per cent cut to share, Kakao takes a further 21 per cent. With KakaoTalk on about nine of every 10 Korean smartphones, it is an easy, albeit costly, way for game developers to be noticed.
When WeChat let users send traditional Lunar New Year gifts of money through their smartphones, a survey by market research firm Ebrun this month found it had been key in users adopting WeChat's payment service: 74 per cent of users surveyed had connected their bank account to their WeChat profile.
But while all three dominate at home - Line in Japan, KakaoTalk in Korea and WeChat in China - they are still battling to win loyalty in other markets, with a survey by researcher OnDevice finding that none of the services was on more than 10 per cent of devices in the United States.