Why 2018 Was the Year of Transforming Messaging Trends
Developers had been quietly working away in 2018 as messaging volumes grow massively and conversational experiences continue to pervade every aspect of human existence. This year specifically exemplified less hype and more progress.
Over the past few years we saw mobile messaging usage gain popularity and reach its potential, so much that it now dominates smartphone usage. However, the more recent and interactive phenomenon is where messaging is used as a platform for developers and enterprises to engage their customers and build advanced conversational experiences. Messaging and conversational experiences are gradually transforming every aspect of the human-computer interface.
Facebook Messenger, for instance, which launched its bot API in 2016, within two years announced that over 300,000 chatbots had been developed on its platform. Messenger has by far the most technically advanced APIs, tools and platforms for chatbots developers. What’s more, it offers open access to developers without any fee, often making it the first choice of channel to experiment with, even if the bot is to be ultimately deployed on another channel.
Marking another significant milestone in 2018, WhatsApp launched its "WhatsApp for Business" platform – an API for enterprises to send automated messages to consumers. WhatsApp is by far the most dominant messaging channel in most parts of the world, except in the US and East Asia. The frequency and intensity of usage surpasses any other communication channel in these countries. This however holds true in the case of consumer messaging. The new APIs are now capable of attracting higher enterprise messaging volumes as well. With WhatsApp adding more features, expanding developer access and fine tuning its pricing and policies, enterprise usage is expected to grow immensely.
RCS, the successor to SMS, continued its gradual progress this year. The mobile operators in Japan went live with a joint RCS service creating history as the first country with full RCS coverage. It will be more interesting, however, to see what channel enterprises and consumers prefer as RCS and line battle for messaging volumes in the country. In all likelihood, they will both grow, as there is immense potential for additional use cases to migrate from apps to messaging. In the US this year, AT&T went live with RCS while Verizon enabled it on a few devices. Worldwide, as other operators are optimistic about RCS, the deployment timelines are either less clear or too long. Handset manufacturers are slowly starting to enable RCS on their devices, still speculating what will be Apple’s next move.
Rise of Voice-Based Assistants
Meanwhile, Alexa, the leader in voice-based conversational services, continues its march through the kitchens and living rooms of consumers. In 2018, Amazon introduced many different form of factors combining audio speakers and screen-based interfaces. Additionally, it also offers cloud APIs for others to embed Alexa into their devices. At the same time, Google Assistant is marching onto (android) smartphones worldwide, with support announced in 2018 for 30 languages in 80 countries. The rise of Alexa and Assistant shows that depending on context users will seamlessly use both oral and textual conversations to get things done. For example, in private spaces (e.g. when driving or cooking), users prefer the oral conversational medium. However, in public spaces (e.g. meeting room or a noisy street), screen-based textual or visual interaction is usually the preferred mode.
Despite the growth of instant messaging and other communication platforms, SMS continues to be the preferred mode for enterprise messaging, given its ubiquity. Globally, enterprises send 2 trillion text messages to consumers worldwide. These are mostly transactional messages notifying customers about information related to their transaction. This year messaging global volume grew by about 10 per cent (according to market research firm Mobilesquared), not bad given its massive scale. While SMS does have its limitations, such as plain-text, restricted-length format, it more than makes up for it with its reach and universality.
Messaging app Viber launched the ‘Viber Community’ service, with group limits of up to 1 billion along with monetization features for group administrators. Amidst success and growth stories, 2018 also saw Russia’s Federal Security Service ordering the Telegram app organization to hand over its users’ encryption keys or face blockage.
While other channels continue to develop, the gold standard worldwide for rich messaging functionality remains WeChat, along with similar apps Line and Kakao. These messaging apps enable users not just to communicate, but also do a wide variety of transactions, including shopping, banking, insurance, payments, travel, taxis, food delivery, jobs, music, news etc. These have now become super-apps that subsume many other apps within them. These are powerful illustrations of the vision of “messaging as a platform”.
Messaging channels and conversational experiences continue their rapid growth even as the hype cycle has moved on. As they say, it is easy to overestimate the short-term and underestimate the long-term - that is certainly the case with messaging and conversational experiences. As messaging functionality and AI/ NLP capabilities reach an inflection point, it is advisable not to underestimate 2019. Wishing all of us a happy new year of messaging.