Asia sees group messaging appeal

Group messaging mobile apps, which are popular and mostly available in the United States, will take Asia by storm once regulatory hurdles are cleared and telcos get onboard, market observers predict.

Group messaging mobile apps might not be proliferate in the Asia-Pacific region today, but industry watchers are already forecasting a bright future for such services once regulatory hurdles are cleared and regional telcos can be convinced to partner these service providers.

According to Jayesh Easwaramony, vice president of ICT practice at Frost & Sullivan, group messaging mobile apps are mainly available only in the United States and not predominant in Asia. This is probably because the U.S. is being used as a test bed for such applications to work well with telcos' networks, he noted.

"The application will catch on in the Asia-Pacific region once this testing is done but, in some cases, there may be regulatory hurdles to clear," he added in his e-mail. His optimism for such apps to be launched globally also stemmed from participation of Internet giants Google and Facebook.

The group-texting market has been in the spotlight recently with search giant Google entering the space when it launched its Disco Messenger iOS app in March. Facebook, too, had acquired barely-started group-texting startup Beluga in the same month.

Group messaging mobile apps' appeal lie in allowing users to message a group of people instead of individual messages. Delivery of such messages vary though, with some service providers using Internet Protocol (IP) to send messages and this is free depending on one's mobile broadband source. Others transmit messages via cellular networks and impose standard text messaging charges on users.

When quizzed, two Singapore-based users extolled the benefits of such group messaging apps.

Web editor Kei Yamada, for one, told ZDNet Asia that she uses WhatsApp--an IP-based group-texting app--when she discusses things with a group of friends. "Instead of having the organizer [of the discussion] to pose her question multiple times to various individuals, she can now ask everyone in the group once and everyone can immediately reply to the discussion at hand," she said.

Game tester Wes Wong added that group texting allows the group to "duke it out" without having one person to function as the controller of the discussion by forwarding messages to different parties.

Telcos' participation needed
As such group messaging apps gain traction, Easwaramony highlighted that telcos could be placed in a position similar to when VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) was introduced and how it slashed the profit margins and growth of their voice business.

"Every telco in the world is facing this tough challenge of either competing with the Internet players or partnering with them," he said.

Easwaramony believed that telcos should choose the latter option as they can benefit by partnering with them as the numbers of such applications increase.

However, Ovum analyst Neha Dharia begs to differ.

In an e-mail, she said: "Rather than partner with startups, telcos might benefit more by...offering similar services. They could also offer additional features such as location or photo sharing to the group text messaging service."

Singapore telco StarHub, meanwhile, sees such applications as a driver of its mobile data instead of a competitor for its SMS revenue. Stephen Lee, assistant vice president of integrated solutions at StarHub, said in an e-mail that the company's postpaid mobile data traffic "surged" to 13.2 million gigabytes (GB) in 2010 from 7.4 million GB in 2009.

Asked if the company is interested in partnering group messaging providers, Lee said: "StarHub is constantly developing innovative services that offer value and convenience to our customers, and we are interested to work with developers or partners to seek new ways of growing data revenues."

Rival operator M1 held the same view. Ivan Lim, M1's deputy director of corporate communications and investor relations, said the company is "constantly looking for ways to improve our services to customers and enhance their mobile-usage". It will not discount any good proposals presented, he added.