text history

Many tech observers have predicted the demise of email – or wished for it to come as soon as possible. That assumption is predicated on the idea that because email is almost as old as the Internet itself, it must be outmoded.

Those predictions have never come to pass, even as our digital habits have shifted to mobile, which, with its smaller screens and pokier keyboards, are less email-friendly. In fact, we’re busy hungrily devouring email on our mobile devices.

What has changed in the last couple of years, however, is that a new form of electronic communication has emerged in parallel with the acceleration of the mobile age, a time in which people now carry powerful computers in their pockets, at all times. While email will remain important for longform communications – letters to friends and family, corporate memos, introductions, the shipping of middleweight files and forms –its social primacy is today being challenged by mobile chat apps, which in the past two years have gone from practically zero to more than a billion users.

Email is far from dead, but it is unlikely to remain the default setting for online communications for long.

In just the last 24 months, we have seen the ascendance of mobile chat apps that not only claim hundreds of millions of users but are also expanding, with some success, into areas that the top email services were never able to touch, including payments, gaming, and voice communication. Apps like WhatsApp, Kik, China’s WeChat, South Korea’s KakaoTalk, Japan’s Line, and then a host of others, including Nimbuzz, Tango, MessageMe, Pinger, Just.me, and Voxer are building ecosystems around their userbases, or simply preventing the need to spend so much time in email.

Meanwhile, Facebook is increasingly putting emphasis on messaging, largely through its Messenger app and its Chatheads. When it launched its high-profile Home launcher for Android, Facebook placed messaging at the center of the experience. At the same time, Snapchat has snagged itself a valuation north of $800 million based on the novel idea of disappearing messages, while Path has pivoted from niche social network into messaging platform.

For all these reasons, this month we are running a special report series called “Shoot the Messenger,” covering how these messaging apps are changing the communications landscape. We’ll look at how apps such as Line, WeChat, and Kik are using mobile chat as a point of entry to a larger experience that ties together a social graph with media sharing, ecommerce, and gaming.

Certainly, the most recent statistics show where the future of communications is headed. A 2012 Pew Internet study, for instance, has shown that 63 percent of teenagers use text messaging more than any other form of communication. A Nielsen report from 2010 has shown that the average American teen sends close to 3,500 texts a month. Those habits are reflected in the fast growth in user numbers for the leading mobile chat apps.

While Facebook has 750 million active users on mobile, the aggregated strength of WeChat (400 million registered users), WhatsApp (300 million), Line (more than 200 million), Nimbuzz (150 million), KakaoTalk (100 million), Tango (100 million), and Kik (80 million) show that the space is very much in flux, and very much up for grabs. Facebook is by no means the default winner in the mobile era, and the company’s app has been playing catch up with its Asian rivals.

The threat that these apps pose to email is multi-pronged. For a start, they boast more immediacy, because text messaging has cultivated a usage behavior predicated on fast response times. If someone sends you a text message, you are likely to respond right away. On the other hand, if someone sends you an email, there’s a fair chance you’ll put it aside to reply to later in the day.

Mobile chat apps are also more personal than email. Because these apps are tied to your address book, you tend to know well the people you communicate with through them. With these friends, you can quickly ping short messages back and forward, with none of the formality implied in email. There’s no subject line, less of a feeling that you need to reply to cross the task off the list, and more of a sense of just hanging out with someone. While email is a to-do list created by other people, chat is more like a face to face conversation. Chat feels intimate.

Given that smartphones travel with their owners, and that location can be easily switched on, chat apps also have a distinct advantage over generic email, especially when it comes to delivering digital goods from brands, or in tagging posts, images, or updates. A Foursquare or Yelp integration with the likes of Kik, for instance, would make sense, perhaps through smart links being trialed by the likes of HD Messaging. For example, I might send a message to my friend suggesting, “Let’s get pizza tonight.” The app could take note of my location and link the word “pizza” to the Yelp listings for places nearby. It’s harder to imagine such an integration working with email, or even for such a spontaneous conversation to take place within email these days.

Unlike email, chat apps have so far done a better job of integrating with a device’s hardware. For instance, WeChat gives you access to the device’s camera so you can snap a photo and add it to your timeline. WhatsApp recently followed its Asian counterparts by adding voice messaging into its product, leveraging the smartphone’s microphone. Other apps, such as Tango and the Chinese version of WeChat, offer Facetime-like video chat.

And while free email services such as Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo Mail, are supported by advertising, chat apps enjoy a range of revenue possibilities, from app distribution, to virtual gifts, to sticker sales, to marketplaces, to in-app purchases via their platforms, to social branding experiences, such as loyalty discounts from retailers that people have chosen to add as “friends.” Because mobile devices are very personal, people are likely more willing to link their bank accounts to chat apps to conduct online transactions, which is why WeChat has high hopes of becoming a payments platform.

Given its young demographics, its location-responsive functionality, its ability to exploit the power of its host devices, various revenue options, and its personal quality, mobile chat makes email look staid and inflexible. Those factors won’t be enough to kill email. Indeed, as a delivery mechanism for in-depth written interactions, it’s hard to imagine what could beat email. But when it comes to online communications, mobile chat’s advantages are perhaps significant enough to one day thrust email into second place.

[Image credit: Mashable; Photoshop by Hallie Bateman]