When text messaging first spread, we got 160-character texts. Then multimedia messaging added photos to the mix—if you were lucky and your carrier supported it.
The skyrocketing popularity of messaging apps around the world signals a shift in the way we communicate. Now we can share more than a simple thought rendered in text. We can share cartoon characters, disappearing selfies, our current location—even our phone’s battery life. The new Apple Watch’s forthcoming messaging app has us imagine a world where we tell our loved ones we’re alive in a literal yet visceral way—by sharing our heartbeat.
The variety of messaging apps makes it hard to pick just one and stick to it. Just look at how teens have jumped from Twitter and Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat.
With jaw-dropping amounts of money being ponied up by investors and acquirers—like Facebook spending $19 billion on WhatsApp—entrepreneurs are racing to get ahead of the next big trend, with the hopes of amassing users and then big paychecks.
The Next Big Thing will likely not be one messaging app, but many. Developers have begun to shift from do-it-all messengers with every imaginable feature to apps that embrace simplicity—and do just one kind of communication very well.
A Messenger’s First Job: Replacing Texts
Messaging stalwarts like WhatsApp and WeChat took traditional messaging features from SMS, the wireless-carrier standard for text messaging, and expanded on them to provide users with a way to communicate while avoiding texting fees.
SMS is unlikely to go away soon, but it lacks many key features. That’s what prompts so many users to seek out apps to replace it. The 160-character limit of standard SMS is just one example of its limitations.
In most parts of the world, texting is expensive. The unlimited-texting plans available in the US are relatively uncommon elsewhere. International texting is particularly pricey. So apps like WhatsApp take advantage of data plans and Wi-Fi connections to take regular texting and make it cheaper.
Especially in global markets, such apps have skyrocketed in popularity. As ReadWrite reported earlier this year, your geographic location might dictate which apps you use. In Asia, WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk are among the most popular, whereas in North America it’s WhatsApp and Kik.
Disappearing Messages Are Here To Stay
Snapchat is largely credited with kicking off the disappearing messages trend, but it’s not the only app out there. As soon as Snapchat exploded on the scene, Internet players both small and large—including Facebook—fell over themselves to replicate the features that drove Snapchat’s growth.
Messages are now disappearing everywhere, and even if they don’t technically disappear on Snapchat, people are still increasingly expecting an option for messaging that won’t go down on their permanent records. The incidents of celebrity’s iCloud accounts getting hacked is just another reason consumers want their selfies to disappear. Whether it’s a selfie on Snapchat or a secure document on Wickr, sending and receiving messages that don’t stick around have become a central part of the way people communicate.
The Yo Effect
Yo cofounder Moshe Hogeg claims is a great way for letting someone know that you’re thinking of them, and the app has spawned a handful of copycats, including one called “Hodor” that riffs on Game of Thrones, the popular book series turned HBO show. ReadWrite’s Lauren Orsini describes how you can make your own Yo clone.
But it’s not the message that matters. It’s the medium. Specifically, it’s how Yo’s “yos” arrive as push notifications, rather than another message in an overcrowded inbox. Eventually, we might Yo our devices, not just our friends. A slew of recipes on IFTTT can connect with your smart home. Yo, thermostat, turn up the heat!
The Walkie-Talkie, Reinvented
I remember running around the yard playing with walkie-talkies when I was a kid. When I grew up, I started using Voxer to keep in touch with friends and family. Even though I regularly ignore voicemails, I’m always anxious to check the voice messages my sister leaves me through the app.
Voice messaging is also a feature of Path Talk, the social network’s spinoff messaging app, and many do-it-all messaging apps feature the ability to send audio recordings.
Apple is even getting on board with this trend. In iOS 8, the company introduced a new voice messaging feature that lets you send friends audio messages through iMessage.
Those tiny, cartoon-like icons you now see everywhere are the cave drawings of the 21st century.
Emoji originated in Japan in the late ’90s as colorful adaptations of standard chat emoticons like the “:)” smiley. Eventually emoji became a standard part of the online alphabet—literally incorporated into the Unicode standard. It was only a matter of time before we got a chat app based exclusively on emoji.
Emoj.li wants to be a way to keep in contact with your friends using only emoji icons. In fact, you don’t even have a name attached to your account when you sign up.
Other messaging apps seek to differentiate themselves—and sometimes make money—through custom emoji sets.
Have you ever wanted to let your friend know you were running late, but were unable to text them? Thanks to ambient location services, it will soon be possible to message your friends without, well, messaging them.
Social networks like Facebook and Foursquare’s Swarm have adopted ambient services as way for friends to know the general area of one another without telling each other outright. But Path’s new messaging app takes that one step further.
Path Talk, the standalone messaging app Path released in June, is a way for people to share information with friends like “in transit,” or “listening to music,” without actively inputting that information.
Critics of ambient location think it’s creepy and potentially invasive, but apps are quick to point out that these services are opt-in, so you have complete control of who can see where you are and what you’re doing.
It’s impossible to predict what new feature is going to appeal to people in the long run. While apps like Yo are fun to play with, they’re also easy to ditch for another app your friends are on. The more permanent message they deliver is how they’ve present us with a new way of communicating.
It’s up to us to explore these new worlds messaging apps create. In the race to become the most popular way to communicate, some startup will inevitably create the messenger we never knew we wanted—until we found it.
Illustrations by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite