WhatsApp hits 250 million monthly active users as OTT messaging continues to flourish

Industry analysts predict that by end of 2013 over-the-top (OTT) messaging will be double that of traditional SMS

In a rare moment of self-promotion, the notoriously press-shy WhatsApp have published usage statistics, revealing to the Wall Street Journal that it now attracts more than 250 million active monthly users.

The company also revealed that inbound traffic on the app (messages sent) had doubled every six months up to March 2013 and that on the June 13 they hit a new daily record of 27 billion messages handled in 24 hours.

These figures combine to make WhatsApp one of the largest messaging platforms globally, though whether their rate of user uptake and messages sent can be sustained remains to be seen.

The competitive field of so-called ‘over the top’ (OTT) instant messaging platforms has seen explosive growth over the past couple of years, with a variety of different companies offering near-identical services and vying for dominance.

A recent study by industry-analysts Informa indicated that by the end of 2013 OTT messaging traffic would be twice that of traditional SMS texts, topping out at around 41 billion messages sent every day (compared to 19.5 billion sent via SMS).

Founded in 2009 by two ex-Yahoo employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum, WhatsApp is one of the earliest entrants into the field. It charges 69p a year subscription, using consumers’ mobile data to make calls, send texts and pictures.

For this reason such messaging services pose a large threat to telecoms companies, who have historically used high mark-ups on SMS and MMS messaging prices as a cash cow (the exact figures for these mark-ups vary from contract to contract but estimates of 6000% are common).

However, despite WhatsApp’s current popularity, it is by no means the clear leader. Microsoft-owned Skype boasts around 280 million monthly active users and has integrated customers from the now-defunct Messenger service. However, Skype - originally a Voice over IP (VoIP) service - has had a six year head start.

Other competitors include Viber (currently drawing over 200 million monthly active users and offering desktop support – something WhatsApp lacks) and Line (a Japanese-based OTT service who claim 150 million registered users, and a line of mascots that are so popular that they have spawned their own cartoon show). Even these healthy figures are dwarfed by the likes of WeChat - an OTT app run by Chinese web giant TenCent - who boast a massive 195 million monthly active users.

As well as competition with similar services, OTT messaging apps also threaten social media sites. Facebook, for example, derives much of its traffic from messagingand launched its own app, Facebook Messenger, in 2011. Although the company doesn't release official user statistics, in November 2012 TechCrunch estimated that the app pulled in around only 57 million monthly active users.

And from the popularity of OTT apps, companies can aim to take over more of consumers screen real estate.  Kakao Talk (based in South Korea, and currently fielding around 90 million users) has used its popularity messaging popularity to launch KakaoHome in May this year. Similar to Facebook Home, Kakao Home is a launcher app that overlays a users' main screen and fields their incoming notifications. It took 13 days to hit one million downloads, which is especially impressive considering Facebook Home took four weeks to hit the same number.

However, despite this catalogue of impressive statistics, OTT messaging will not be pushing out SMS services anytime soon. Informa analyst Pamela Clark-Dickinson even predicts that SMS revenue will continue to increase through to 2016, partly because the insularity of OTT messaging communities means that “users typically use SMS when communicating with non-OTT users” but also because “SMS is starting to hit its stride in the enterprise mobile messaging market.”

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