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Facebook's WhatsApp is down: and why you don't need to care.

Reports are in, Sunday May 25th 2014, of a widespread Memorial Day Weekend outage affecting WhatsApp, the popular instant messaging application acquired by Facebook for 20 Billion dollars.

Users are reporting spotty service of the application from different geographical areas, at different times, from a variety of other media, including a large number of competing IM mobile apps, such as Kik, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and Google Plus.

The big question is: why does it matter?

If one were to look at Instant Messengers from a profitability standpoint, the ecosystem of a messaging app is no better designed today on an Apple iPhone, than it was in 1998 when Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger were all the rage a desktop environment could offer.

Accessibility to phone contacts is one way to make such ecosystem more lively, yet what are the chances of paying attention to an ad supported medium where only an insignificant percentage of one's contacts are available?

In one scenario, we have applications like Kik, or Skout, which provides a range of other apps and functionalities designed to browse for other users using the same app, similarly to the traditional 90s approach which made Yahoo Messenger popular. The downside is the murky nature of browsing strangers profiles on such apps often dubbed “flirting” or “match-making” apps.

One can see the type of market these applications cater to, but what about the rest of us?

The number of instant messaging apps available across the Apple App Store, Google Play Store and Microsoft Windows Store grows every day, making the mobile landscape of instant messaging, a very fragmented one.

From a technical standpoint, IM apps are easy to build from concept to inception, and require very little creativity and planning. Ad placement goes largely ignored, and unless we factor in intentional bad design into the marketing strategy of having users tap on banner ads by mistake.

The big question is still left unanswered, even when we look into Instant Messaging apps integrated in large and popular ecosystems like Facebook.

Follow the money

Most mobile users pay a hefty monthly premium to phone companies, to be able to call and text family, friends and workplaces. The same companies, of course bundle voice calls and text messaging with data plans, which allow users to download apps to message family, friends and coworkers without the need to pay for texts. On Apple iPhones, iMessage provides a similar functionality, by sending text messages as instant messages over WiFi or 3G/4G. The same thing happens when Android users enable Hangouts as default text messaging application.

If one were to forget for a moment that “unlimited talk and text” means those text, whether one uses them or not, are already paid for, one would certainly feel a certain sense of accomplishment. Sadly... one would be far from “sticking it to the man” using Internet apps instead of native text messaging, the same way as one would use Skype, FaceTime of Hangouts instead of native phone calling.

There goes another seemingly meaningful justification for the very existence of Instant Messaging on smartphones.

Where do IM apps go from here?

As long as phone companies call the shots with bundled services requiring text messaging as part of their plan, Instant Messaging apps are nothing more than gimmicks, smartphone apps equivalents to a rubik’s cube keychain:

  • they are pretty to look at(the first time around),
  • they are fun to mess around with for a few minutes,
  • they hold a lot of promise,
  • but all they do is add weight to an already over-encumbered string of other gimmicks.

Finally... the answer to the big question:

It’s undeniable, Instant Messaging users seem to be in strong numbers, in spite of the unclear engagement statistics. Yet if we stop and think about it... that’s the answer to the big question.

What is the real potential of Instant Messaging apps? A hint: not messaging.

An Instant Messaging app is essentially a sign-up incubator. A marketer’s ultimate win in a world where cold-contact SPAM and black-hat tactics are finally beginning to fail.

The moment a single user signs up and submits an email or a phone number, the system works. Depending on the app’s “features”, the data gathered can be extremely useful. Gender, age, orientation, income, relationship status, and more parameters are suddenly stored and available for either internal marketing, or resale.

When thinking about how much Facebook has paid for WhatsApp, it’s important to remember that Facebook is a publicly traded marketing company, first, and it’s not the only one.

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