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11 Hot Mobile Messaging Apps from Asia and How They’re Super-Innovative

Anh-Minh Do
asia messaging apps 2013

With the numbers Rick released on mobile messaging apps growth, and Willis’ post on how heated the mobile messaging battle is getting, I thought I’d take a look at the killer features that make messaging apps so strong with younger smartphone users in the region. They’re all a big threat to Facebook Messenger (which seems to be imitating Asian chat apps in some respects) and the newer Facebook Poke. Why are these apps so hot? It all boils down to the virtual stickers and being so multimedia and immediate. This is where Asian apps are innovating like crazy. Of course, all messaging apps have a set of features that mark them as messaging apps, so we’ll just note them in a quick list and move on:

  • Instant messaging with ‘sending’ and ‘received’ notifications
  • Group chat
  • Sending a photo or video (WeChat and Zalo are the only ones that offer Instagram-like photo filters)
  • Changing your chat area’s wallpaper
  • Leaving an audio note or message
  • Sharing contact info
  • Sharing your location
  • Live video or voice calling
  • A microblogging feature like Path.

Now, I’ll go through the ten most prominent chat apps in Asia, and show you what each one has that makes them stand out from the others.

Chikka from the Philippines

Released: October 2010 Users: 500,000+ The Philippines, where foreign-made chat apps like Whatsapp and Viber rule the roost, also has its own messaging app called Chikka. The app is currently sitting in 28th position in the Apple App Store in the social networking category, which means it’s had hundreds of thousands of downloads. The app doesn’t have any notable additions beyond the basics. And hasn’t grown much over the past three years.

Comm from Japan

Released: October 2012 Users: ~5 million Comm, created by social gaming platform DeNa, came out in October last year and already has five million users to date. The app is also the only one in this list that sports a left hand side tab bar, similar to the Facebook mobile app.

Cubie from Taiwan.

Released: March 2012 Users: ~5 million Cubie centers its chat experience around allowing users to draw pictures (and to add text bubbles to those pictures) and send animated GIFs, which is not a very common function. Cubie also recently added a Snapchat/Facebook Poke-like feature, allowing users to send messages that disappear within 10 seconds. Only Cubie has this among the Asian-made apps, and it’s awesome. Cubie recently raised funding and joined 500 Startups’ incubation program.

GREE Messenger from Japan (only available in Australia, New Zealand, and India)

Released: February 2013 Users: 50,000+ The Japanese game platform juggernaut is stepping up its game by entering the chat app arena. It’s too soon to tell with the numbers, and the app only carries the basic features for now, but it’s bound to start integrating with the backing of GREE’s many game developers and designers.

KakaoTalk from South Korea.

Released: March 2010 Users: 75 million Kakaotalk allows users to create and schedule an event with friends in the chat window. A feature that surprisingly no one else has. KakaoTalk is open source, thus allowing users to create their own themes. It also allows users to download a separate game app and play with Kakaotalk friends. KakaoTalk has also added localized stickers for Lunar New Year, and even pushed K-pop star stickers into the spotlight. It also has animated stickers and even ones with sound. And the most cool feature of all? The app allows users to buy vouchers for friends that can be redeemed at cooperating merchants. For example, I could buy you a coffee through the chat app, and you could show the coupon, and get it at your local coffee shop. Unfortunately, this has only been released in South Korea. KakaoTalk also has social gaming integration, though that’s currently only running for users in Japan and South Korea.

Line from the Japanese team under South Korean company, NHN.

Released: June 2011 Users: 100 million Line allows users to send cards, drawings, pictures, and play games. Games have been a huge factor in drawing users to the chat platform. Unfortunately, these features can only be accessed after users download separate apps. It makes much more sense to me to get them natively in the app. But this hasn’t stopped the chat app from accumulating a massive base of users. The design is really nice and it sells $2 sticker packs. Line also pushes celebrities’, companies’, and even lotteries’ info to users’ chat screens. Its makers, NHN Japan, plan to focus even more on Line in 2013, and will even spin it off into a separate company.

Nimbuzz from India via the Netherlands

Released: November 2008 Users: 100 million Although the app is originally a Dutch company, it moved its headquarters to India in mid-2011. The app is relatively simple like Chikka and GREE Messenger but offers integration with online chat applications like Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, Facebook, and Windows Live Messenger. It also has a feature where users can make international calls. Some might say this is more like an older style instant messenger (IM) app.

WeChat from China’s Tencent.

Released: January 2011 Users: 300 million WeChat allows users to access add-ons, like Battery Doctor and Find Nearby, which users can install (or disable) just like browser extensions. Plus, WeChat has live video and voice calling, in addition to the option of sending shorter voice or video clips. This is perhaps the most multimedia of all messaging apps. It also offers a web interface so you can send messages via any web browser - it’s activated with a neat QR code. In its newest update last week, WeChat added song recognitionc (like SoundHound) and voice chatrooms. Plus, WeChat also has a broader social network inside it, called Moments, which is basically a lot like Path. WeChat employs a cool feature for users to find new friends by shaking their phones. If I shake my phone and you shake yours at the same time, we’ll be able to chat with each other. Also, it lets users find people by checking who else is using the app within a one-to-two kilometer radius. Alongside its massive user-base and local Chinese advantage, WeChat is taking on Whatsapp and Line in Southeast Asia, and is pushing into global markets as well.

Zalo from Vietnam.

Released: August 2012 Users: 500,000+ Zalo is Vietnam’s homegrown challenger. It’s made by sVNG (formerly Vina Gaming) and has been accumulating users at breakneck speeds. It’s already at the top of the Vietnamese iOS App Store. Zalo allows users to send drawings natively in the app, and allows users to play a Vietnamese version of Draw Something. It’s also got animated stickers with sound like KakaoTalk, featured mainly for Lunar New Year. Zalo, like WeChat, allows users to find new friends within a five kilometer radius. But, hungry for more users, it also lets users to go into topic-specific group chats to find friends. Built on the still burgeoning forum culture in Vietnam.

Relationship Apps A special mention goes to relationship apps, which are decidedly niche messaging apps. Given the relative success of these smaller apps and the increasingly crowded space created by the mains apps discussed above, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more “vertical messaging apps” that cater to specific segments of the texting market. After all, we already have flirting apps, and now the “self-destructing” messaging apps. These relationship apps are sort of the opposite of those other apps, and are all about trust and intimacy.

Between from South Korea.

Released: November 2011 Users: 2 million+ With Between, on top of allowing users to text each other as in the big general apps, it also allows users to create albums together, write cute notes to each other, and remember events like anniversaries together. Between recently raised nearly $3 million in funding.

Lovebyte from Singapore

Released: July 2012 Users: 40,000+ (but apparently enough to crash its servers) Like Between, Lovebyte also allows users to create albums, notes, save dates, and even add milestones like the first date. Plus, it can store details like a couple’s favorite movie, and even displays how many days you and your loved one have been together. A cool feature that the app has on the side is allowing users to send each other scratchcards. It’s basically a two-sided flashcard that you send to your loved one. You put text on both sides, and your loved one scratches the other side to see a love note that you put on the other side. A cute and interesting idea for young couples in love. Lovebyte launched on Android a couple of weeks ago.

The Innovation Continues As you can see, this list is jam-packed with innovative ideas for communicating and connecting with friends, family, and loved ones. From KakaoTalk’s mobile payment vouchers to WeChat’s ’Look Around’ feature to Zalo’s version of Draw Something, there are so many cool things that users are able to do in these messaging apps. With the battle raging on, I’m sure companies will be using 2013 to pump out even more cool features, and the user numbers will just keep doubling.
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