The Future of Messaging is…

October 20, 2015

A lot more than pure messaging.

The future

Messaging used to be about presence and IM. Then the VoIP people came and placed the voice and video chat stickers on it. That then became unified communications. Which is all nice and well, but it is both boring and useless at this point. Useless not because the utility of the service isn’t there, but because the expectation of such a service is to be free – or close to that. Or as I like saying, it has now become a feature within another service more than a service in its own right.

While this is killing unified communications, it doesn’t seem to be making much of a dent on messaging just yet. And the reason I think is the two very different trajectories these are taking:

  • Unified Communications is focused on being the one true source of everything that gets federated with all other communication means
  • Messaging shifted towards becoming platforms, where the size of the ecosystem and its utility outweighs any desire or need to federate with other similar services

This migration of messaging towards becoming platforms isn’t so easy to explain. There’s no silver bullet of how this is done. No secret recipe that gets you there.

Here are a few strategies that different messaging platforms are employing in their attempt to gain future growth.

Whatsapp and Simplicity

Whatsapp is all about simplicity. It offers pure messaging that replaces the SMS for many, coupled with group messaging that makes it sticky and viral in many countries.

Features don’t make it into Whatsapp fast. The only thing that was added in the past two years of any notable value is voice calling.

With this approach, Whatsapp still is the largest player in town when it comes to messaging; and it is probably doing so with the smallest possible team size.

The problem with such an approach, is that there isn’t enough room for many such players – and soon, to be a viable player in this domain will require a billion monthly active users.

Apple and iMessage

In that same token, the Apple iMessage is similar. It is simple, and it is impossible to miss or ignore if you have an iPhone.

But it is limited to Apple’s ecosystem which only runs on iOS devices.

Google Hangout (and now Jibe Mobile)

Google Hangouts was supposed to do the same/similar on Android, but didn’t live up to the expectation:

  • Unlike Whatsapp, group chat is available in Hangouts, but isn’t viral or “mandatory”
  • Unlike Apple iMessage, the user needs to make a mental note of using Hangouts instead of the SMS app. There are two of those, and as a user, you are free to choose which one to us. Choice adds friction and omplexity

With the acquisition of Jibe Mobile, this may change in the future. Will others follow suit? Is there enough utility and need in connecting messaging with Telco messaging, and especially with RCS, that many (myself included, at least until this acquisition) see as dead on arrival?

Facebook and Artificial Intelligence

Facebook is experimenting with artificial intelligence that is embedded into their Facebook Messenger service – not the social network where e-commerce is the current focus.

This new AI initiative is called Facebook M and is planned to be driven by part machine part humans.

In many ways, this is akin to the integration LivePerson (a chat widget for contact centers) has with knowledge bases that can cater to customer’s needs without “harassing” live agents in some cases. But this one is built into the messaging service the customer uses.

It is compared to Siri and Cortana, but you can also compare it to Google Now – once Facebook fleshes out the service, they can open up APIs for third parties to integrate to it, making it a platform for engaging with businesses.

WeChat and the Digital Life Platform

WeChat is large in Asia and dominant in many ways. It is an e-commerce platform and a digital life ecosystem.

Connie Chan of Andreessen Horowitz gives a good overview of what makes WeChat a platform:

Along with its basic communication features, WeChat users in China can access services to hail a taxi, order food delivery, buy movie tickets, play casual games, check in for a flight, send money to friends, access fitness tracker data, book a doctor appointment, get banking statements, pay the water bill, find geo-targeted coupons, recognize music, search for a book at the local library, meet strangers around you, follow celebrity news, read magazine articles, and even donate to charity … all in a single, integrated app.

WeChat transitioned from being a communication tool to becoming a platform. It has APIs that makes it easy for third parties to integrate with it and offer their own services on top of WeChat’s platform.

While I use the term “from service to feature” when talking about VoIP and WebRTC, Connie Chan uses “where social is just a feature” to explain the transition WeChat has made in this space.

The ability to send messages back and forth and communicate in real time via voice and video is now considered table stakes. It is also not expected to be a paid service but a feature that gets monetized elsewhere.

Meanwhile in Enterprise Messaging

Slack, which Connie Chan also briefly notes in his account of WeChat, is the guiding light of enterprise messaging these days.

Unlike other players in this space, Slack has built itself around the premise of three strong characteristics:

  • Integration – third parties can integrate their apps into Slack, and in many cases, Slack integrates automatically through links that get shared inside messages. Integrations that make sense and bring value to larger audiences of Slack gets wrapped into Slack – the acquisition of Screenhero and the plans to enhance it to video conferencing shows this route
  • Omnisearch – everything in Slack is searchable. Including the content of links shared on Slack. This makes for a powerful search capability
  • Slackbot – the slackbot is a Slack bot you can interact with inside the service. It offers guidance and some automation – and is about to enjoy artificial intelligence (or at the very least machine learning)

The enterprise platform is all about utility.

Slack is introducing AI and has its own marketplace of third party apps via integrations. The more enterprises use it, the more effect these two capabilities will have in enforcing its growth and effectiveness.

While the fight seems to be these days between Unified Communications and Enterprise Messaging, I believe that fight is already behind us. The winner will be Enterprise Messaging – either because UC vendors will evolve into Enterprise Messaging (or acquire such vendors) or because they will lose ground fast to Enterprise Messaging vendors.

The real fight will be between modern Enterprise Messaging platforms such as Slack and consumer messaging platforms such as WeChat – enterprises will choose one over the other to manage and run their internal workforce.

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  1. Even with Slack and other new communication apps the workplace communication remains broken as long as the communication is detached from the actual business data. I find it very frustrating having to search for comments outside app that hosts the actual business data.

    If one wants to fix the issue then the answer is, for example, Podio where one can organise company data and have discussions where the business data is located. Even Podio is not a silver bullet that fixes everything but in my opinion a lot better than chat apps.

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