In any normal market, 100 million users would mean you’re a huge success. For Canadian companies like BlackBerry and Kik Interactive that compete in the messaging app space, however, it’s not nearly enough to catch up with WhatsApp.
Most people seemed shocked that Facebook paid US$16 billion to acquire WhatsApp this week, but after the dust settles what really matters is whether standalone messaging apps have a future at all. And while they may be going about it in vastly different ways, BlackBerry and Kik show their strategies aren’t that far off from where Facebook and WhatsApp are headed.
In the early days of the Internet, there was much talk about “convergence,” which referred to deals in which the companies that lead their fields in content creation would join forces -- either through partnership or through M&A -- with those who operated the biggest distribution networks. This was the thinking behind the marriage of AOL and Time Warner in early 2000, and while that particular union didn’t play out as planned, convergence is still regarded as the inevitable foundation for long-term growth.
When you think about messaging apps, for example, what do they really do except allow people to trade short pieces of text quickly? Once you’ve fine-tuned the user interface and ensured the services works quickly, there’s not a lot of additional value to add except introducing ways to create or share content. In this context, Facebook, which creates little content of its own but generates a vast amount from its users, will now be able to integrate status updates, photos and other content through WhatsApp’s distribution network of 450 million users (Facebook said it will keep WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger separate, but believe me, convergence is coming).
Though few would see it as such, BlackBerry’s approach with BBM was almost a prequel to the Facebook-WhatsApp merger. It began by offering its messaging service across other platforms like iOS and Android, which generated a surge of more than 80 million subscribers by this past October. It then rolled out BBM Channels, a sort of internal social media service which allowed users to “follow” each other. Some likened it to Twitter, but company officials described it as more like Tumblr -- the Yahoo-owned blogging platform that has generated an untold motherlode of content. The challenge now, however, is that the content on BBM Channels may have to become as compelling as what you see on your Facebook account to continue the increase in monthly active users for the long term.
Kik Interactive, which is also based in Waterloo, Ont., may be tackling the convergence problem in the most intriguing way of all. It has a respective distribution service of more than 100 million users, but the content wasn’t there. It started to remedy this in 2012 by creating “cards” -- like apps-within-apps that allowed people to share a YouTube video clip, for example, within a Kik chat session. More recently, however, the company has created its own built-in browser, which means third-party developers could simply optimize their app or site for Kik and have it instantly available to Kik users. Instead of trying to acquire or be bought by a large social media service or content producer, Kik is effectively turning its service into a platform on which almost anyone can offer great content. In other words, Kik is starting to behave a lot more like Facebook.