Comparing messaging apps is an exercise in pointlessness

Different strokes for different folks.
Different strokes for different folks.
Image: Reuters/Barry Huang
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Line, a Japanese messaging app, announced today that it’s hit 400 million registered users. That’s an impressive number, especially since it stood at 300 million only four months ago. But it also means very little in isolation. By way of comparison, another popular messaging app in Asia, KakaoTalk, which also revealed updated figures today (paywall), has 140 million users. How do these numbers match up to the world’s most popular—and, since it was bought by Facebook, now best-known—messaging app, WhatsApp?

It’s hard to say. WhatsApp says it has 465 million monthly active users, of which 330 million use the app every day. Active users provide a better idea of how much the app is used than registered users, but since different apps use different metrics, comparisons are hard.

A better answer may be found by comparing how many messages people actually send. Fortunately, Line and WhatsApp both supply this number. Line’s wording is very careful: “Since the start of 2014, records have been set for the daily usage of chat messages (10 billion/day).” That doesn’t break down messages by those sent and received (which differ since a single message can be sent to multiple users), or say when exactly the records were set, but it’s a start. WhatsApp is more explicit:

At 64 billion to 10 billion, WhatsApp retains an impressive lead over Line. On the other hand, Line counts sticker messages and phone calls (which it allows within the app) separately. Taken together, they add nearly another couple of  billion to Line’s tally. But how to weight a phone call as compared to a message? And to complicate matters further, the most popular use of Line appears not to be messaging or stickers, but games—at least based on the 60% of revenues it derives from in-app gaming.

Despite the hype surrounding messaging apps over the past few months, the fact is that different apps do different things for different people. WhatsApp is like its new owner, Facebook, in that it functions as a standard that lots of people use. Line is popular for gaming. China’s WeChat is big on shopping and payments. South Africa’s Mxit and India’s Hike connect users to people without smartphones. SnapChat is fun because it’s fleeting. Firechat, a new app, works in a small area even when there’s no internet or cell phone signal. Comparisons between messaging apps tend to treat them as hammers and communication as a nail; in reality, they are more like a toolbox, with many different uses.