Here we go. TechCrunch is reporting a rumor that Facebook will buy WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app that has tens of millions of users and costs 99 cents in the App Store.
Stupidly important early caveat: This is just a rumor. It could be wrong. People talked a lot about Facebook buying Opera recently, too, and that came to naught. But the potential implications of Facebook buying WhatsApp are too significant not to have fun with, so let’s dive in.
My bet is not that this would be merely a way to “extend touchpoints with mobile consumers,” but a chance to reinvent the Facebook mobile experience so that it is more in line with the chat apps that are utterly dominating mobile platforms in Asia and stealing consumers and their attention time from larger social networks born in the desktop era.
The first place you should look in this case is China, where Tencent’s Weixin, which is like WhatsApp on steroids, has 200 million users and is eroding the popularity of Sina Weibo, the Facebook-Twitter hybrid that had beaten all-comers in China’s social networking space. Weixin, which has an English-language counterpart called WeChat, not only has a social graph that hooks up to other social networks as well as building on address books in phones, but it lets users chat, do video calls, play games, send gifts, share photos, update statuses, meet strangers, and get discounts from brands, all in the one app.
Sounds kind of like Facebook, right? Except Weixin is mobile native and has already figured out a monetization scheme beyond in-stream display ads. Nike, Cadillac, and Starbucks have already run ad campaigns through the app, which is less than two years old, even though Tencent, a company with a market cap pretty similar to Facebook’s ($58b vs $60b), has said monetization is not yet a major concern.
Through its gaming platform, Weixin is also already developing a Facebook-like app ecosystem within the mobile environment.
As I wrote on Thursday, “If an equivalent of Weixin existed in the US and had similar popularity, mobile-challenged Facebook would be in serious trouble. But because there is no dominant US equivalent… Facebook actually has an opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Tencent also owns 14 percent of South Korea’s Kakao Talk – a stake for which it paid $61 million – which has more than 60 million users and recently launched a games platform that has registered huge early numbers. In its first three months, the “Kakao Game” platform had already seen three games reach more than 10 million downloads. In total, more than 80 million games were downloaded during the period at a rate of 3.58 games per subscriber.
Kakao Talk also has a monetization scheme that eschews the boring and intrusive in-stream display advertising on which Facebook’s mobile experience has so far been based. Kakao Talk has a feature called “Plus Friend” in which users can choose to add brands to their friend lists in exchange for discounts and special offers that can be delivered by instant chat. I know that there are US companies looking at this model. Expect to see at least one app launch with this approach within a couple of months.
And let’s not forget LINE, made by NHN, another Korean company, which is dominating in Japan. LINE makes its money by selling virtual stickers and offering Groupon-like coupons.
There may be a tendency among some in the West to dismiss these Asian messaging services as culturally specific phenomena that won’t necessarily translate well to the US. Some people sneer at the all-in-one approach taken by the likes of Weixin, Kakao Talk, and LINE. Critics say that feature-heavy approach wouldn’t work in the US, where Internet users prefer simplicity and sole-purpose apps that focus on doing one thing very well. That was Kik’s justification for introducing HTML5 “cards” as a way to offer sharing of videos, images, and sketches without sullying the clean chat interface.
Those critics might turn out to be right. But they have little proof to back up their claims. Again, I quote myself from Thursday:
No company other than the Asian players has tried to conquer the US market with a WeChat-style, feature-rich messenger. Path comes close, but it focuses more on content- and status-sharing than chatting.
Such an attempt to build a catch-all communications app might well fail in the US. It’s true that Web users here prefer minimalist, simple design. But at the same time, hundreds of millions of users seem happy to use Facebook’s bloated and cumbersome mobile app. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Zuckerberg and co try a different approach?
Another reason it would be a mistake to dismiss the success of Weixin, Kakao Talk, and LINE as culturally specific successes is that Asia has led the way in Internet innovation in the past. For instance, Cyworld, a Korean company, cracked the social networking code and made money from it before even Friendster saw the light of day. And Tencent figured out a way to get rich off an instant messenger, QQ, where its foreign predecessors – AOL, MSN, and ICQ – could not. It did that by thinking outside the banner ad, instead selling virtual items so that users could dress up their avatars.
And that is why the idea of Facebook acquiring WhatsApp doesn’t sound so crazy. Facebook, as it has acknowledged, has to find new ways to make money on mobile. In-stream display ads alone are not going to be enough. There’s not enough mobile real-estate in the world to make that work. If Facebook does go ahead and buy WhatsApp, don’t be surprised if it eventually comes out with a mobile product that looks a lot more like Weixin and company. That would be an app in which brands have a much more intimate, direct relationship with consumers; one that would facilitate ecommerce; and one that would serve as a platform for third-party apps – games, especially – that might look a like Facebook’s App Center.
When he was describing Kik’s new features to me the other day, the company’s founder Ted Livingston said he believes the mobile chat space is a zero-sum game. For now, Kakao Talk and LINE might rule Korea and Japan, but Livingston believes that one company will come to dominate the entire space – just as Facebook did with social networks in the desktop era.
Facebook has as good a chance at dominating that space as anyone, but it has to move fast. Buying WhatsApp might be a handy way to get there quicker.