Weighing in on the best messaging apps

Top messaging apps collage

Facebook recently forked out approximately $16 billion (reports differ on the exact amount) to purchase the popular messaging service, WhatsApp. With Facebook Messenger not having the success that was anticipated, this acquisition is aimed at tightening Facebook’s grip on communication via mobile devices.

Whether this purchase of WhatsApp is a good or bad thing (people are already bracing themselves for third-party apps and invasive ads), still remains to be seen. The co-founder of WhatsApp once wrote a personalized note to his CEO saying, “No ads! No games! No gimmicks!” Let’s hope this philosophy prevails.

WhatsApp is, however, not the only super successful messaging service out there and with the acquisition news still fresh in our minds we look at some of these messaging app stars.

WhatsApp

(Available for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Nokia Symbian OS and Windows Phone)

Of course we had to start with Facebook’s newly-acquired messaging service.

So, what makes this service so special? At one point about 27 billion messages were being handled in a 24-hour period by WhatsApp servers and the service has about 450-million monthly users. Even though it is a free service, a $0.99 subscription fee is applicable after the user has used the service for one year. Multiply that fee with their user count and you get a lot of revenue that Facebook will put in their pockets!

In South Africa, WhatsApp seems to have become one of the top messaging apps to use. It’s not unusual to hear people say “WhatsApp me” when they want someone to contact them. Even though WhatsApp refuses to divulge specific statistics about user numbers by country, they have said that South Africa is one of the top 10 countries in terms of user numbers. In countries like the United States, however, WhatsApp is not as well-known and that’s why Facebook’s decision came as such a surprise.

One of the greatest benefits of using a service like WhatsApp is the low cost. It is free to use for the first year and then costs $0.99 (just below R11.00) per year. Which I think most of us would agree is a minimal price to pay.

It has a very simple, clean interface and doesn’t come with any fancy cutomizations (something that may or may not count as a positive for some people). You can download a WhatsApp wallpaper app if you want a pretty background or you can use an image of your own. There are emoticons you can use while chatting and you can send photos via the service. Another benefit is the fact that WhatsApp has vowed to never put ads in their app (our introduction shows this promise from the co-founder).

You can customize your personal profile and add a status that other WhatsApp users can see. There are some privacy concerns, however. WhatsApp automatically has access to all your phone contacts whether any of these people have the app or not. WhatsApp is also constantly connected to the Internet but the costs to use it are so low in comparison to SMS that you hardly notice it. There is, however, no video chat option (yet).

Update: Jan Koum, co-founder and CEO of WhatsApp, announced at the 2014 Mobile World Congress that WhatsApp will be introducing free voice calling to their list of features. This feature should be made available in the second quarter of 2014.

WeChat

(Available for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry and Nokia Symbian OS)

South Africans have certainly seen an increase in advertising from WeChat at the end of 2013 and now in 2014. Radio, TV and even YouTube is being bombarded with images that want to lure users away from its big rival WhatsApp. Lionel Messi (the famous Argentinian footballer) was even hired by the company to promote the brand. WeChat already has a huge following in China (the country the service was founded in) and now it’s expanding to the rest of the world.

WeChat is more of an all-encompassing service than WhatsApp. You can send video, voice, text and photo messages through the app (WhatsApp only has text and photo). WeChat has a web chat feature that allows smartphone and PC users to communicate with each other using a QR code (you know, those barcode-type images you scan with your phone).

WeChat also has group chat and a “shake” feature that allows you to find people to chat to globally and locally if you just shake the phone vigorously (comical to say the least). Another fun feature is the “drift bottle” feature that allows you to anonymously throw out a virtual “message in a bottle” and see who picks it up. The app has a huge range of emoticons but also allows one to create customized emoticons to express your true feelings.

One of the disadvantages of WeChat is, once again, privacy. Even if you do not have someone’s phone number but they have yours, they have access to your profile, status and can chat to you even if you do not know them. Even more concerning is that WeChat is monitored and censored by the Chinese government. You also get unwarranted “sticker” notifications which can become a nuisance.

Despite the above, there are many advantages to using WeChat. It has a built-in photo editing tool (no need to go somewhere else to put that flattering filter on your photos). The app is absolutely free to download (no subscription costs). Some people are even using WeChat to shop with and to book restaurants. They have introduced WeChat-enabled vending machines that will unlock when you are close to it. Obviously this is not available everywhere (only in Beijing, China so far) but if and when WeChat becomes more popular, who knows? WeChat seems to be aiming to incorporate everything they can into their mobile service.

LINE

(Available for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Nokia Asha, Firefox OS, Windows Phone as well as Windows and Mac PCs)

LINE is a messaging application that is extremely popular in countries like Japan, Thailand and Spain, mainly because of the fun and cutesy nature of the app. An interesting fact about the Line app is that it was developed after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake hit Japan and knocked out most telecommunication systems. LINE was the only way many people could contact each other in Japan during this time of crisis.

The app’s main focus is to bring fun to the messaging experience with thousands of free stickers and images you can send to fellow Line users. Line provides users with free voice and video calls, as well as free texting. You can send photos, location info and instant video messages to contacts. It also has a group chat feature. You can add contacts by shaking your devices next to each other (similar to WeChat’s “shake” feature, mentioned above)) and via QR codes.

One disadvantage of this app that you cannot use the same application across multiple devices (you can only use it on your smartphone or your tablet but not both). Another disadvantage that one should perhaps take into consideration is the fact that the registration process is drawn out and complicated. But it is great that one can use the app on your PC and not just your mobile device. Voice calls are all made via VOIP which means that WiFi and 3G are used to connect your call.

An aspect that makes LINE rise above the rest is the various applications it has to complement it. Some of these include LINE Camera (a photo editing tool), LINE Play (for gaming), LINE Brush (an app similar to MS Paint) and LINE Card (to send a celebratory card to a contact). You can even create something similar to a blog that you can share with your LINE contacts that display photos and stories from your life.

Viber

(Available for desktop PCs as well as Nokia Symbian OS, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Samsung Bada and Windows Phone)

Viber is a relatively well-known service but perhaps not used as much as other messaging apps. Viber allows you to make phone calls (via WiFi or your paid data plan) and send text messages to other Viber users for free. Some might see this as a disadvantage since both people need to have the app to communicate (but let’s face it, this is the case for all the messaging apps so far). However, Viber also has a service where you can “Viber out”. This means Viber users can call non-Viber users on their mobiles or landlines at low call rates (about 1.9ȼ per minute).

You can use Viber on an Android tablet and can send messages while talking to someone on a Viber call. Viber users can send voice messages to one another. Chat and call dashboards can be customized by downloading backgrounds through a special Viber gallery. You can also add stickers to your chats via the Viber sticker market.

Even though Viber is not as feature-rich as many of the other messaging apps, it is a great option if you’re looking to reduce what you pay for calls or eliminate costs completely. All you need is to download the app and ask people who you frequently call to download the app as well.