Messenger vs Skype vs Slack vs Telegram: How to spot the winners

Conversational UI and messaging bots are becoming one of the defining tech trends of 2016. The idea of mobile messaging as a B2B2C channel has been proved in China by hugely popular Tencent’s Weixin/WeChat messaging platform. Messaging dominates time people spend with their phones. Why not use messaging to connect users and businesses? This approach is being imported to The West by Facebook, Telegram, Kik, and now Microsoft, all competing for the leadership of the post-app era.

The lessons learned from the iOS and Android platform wars can help us see future winners in the brewing battle of messaging platforms. Mobile platform war was won by the halo effect between users and 3rd party developers. Users attract developers. Developer create apps. Apps attract more users, which attract more developers. A very similar dynamic is taking hold in messaging platforms now.

Back in 2011, when mobile app platforms were very new, we created a 5-ingredient framework to help our clients understand why iOS and Android are becoming so powerful so fast and why they soon to become a duopoly. The framework stood the test of time helping us predict the duopoly of iOS and Android, the fate of HTML5, and the demise of Nokia and Windows Phone. I find the tried and tested 5-ingredient framework very useful for making sense of the emerging landscape of messaging platforms.

Successful computing platforms like iOS or Android have 5 key ingredients:

  1. Software foundations: a rich set of APIs with managed fragmentation and a toolset for creating apps and services
  2. A community of developers writing to the same set of APIs to spur innovation and cater to diverse use cases
  3. Distribution (reach) to millions of user across multiple devices
  4. A means of monetization, such as payments or ads
  5. A means of retailing content (discovery, promotion, recommendations)

Platform owners (e.g. Apple, Google, Facebook or Amazon) control their ecosystems of users and developers by means of two control points. First, platform owners control content creation by locking developers into a proprietary API. Second, platform owners control content distribution by gating how apps are discovered by and distributed to end users.

The same exact thinking applies to messaging platforms:

  1. The winners and losers in messaging wars will be defined by the strength of the halo effect between users and bot developers, and
  2. The owners of the messaging platforms will battle for rights over bot creation and bot distribution control points.

The 5-ingredient framework helps to see the relative strengths and weaknesses of Messenger, Skype, Kik, Telegram and Slack platforms, as well as where these companies may put their efforts next. For simplicity, I’ll keep LINE and Amazon Alexa outside the picture for the time being.

So far the focus of Western messaging platforms was clearly on bootstrapping their developer ecosystems. This begins with publishing an open API, but the key to success is in creating a vibrant developer ecosystem around this API. Slack and Telegram are in the lead today. Facebook and Microsoft will intensify their developer outreach efforts following their API announcements. At VisionMobile we are measuring how Facebook, Microsoft, Slack, Telegram, Kik and others are successful in attracting developer attention in the upcoming 11th edition of our Developer Experience Tracker survey.

As the messaging ecosystem matures, the focus will shift to distribution, monetisation, and retailing of business accounts and bots. WeChat is already at this phase with their almost 700M monthly active users, the popular Tenpay payment network and widespread use of QR codes in China. WeChat QR codes are used to discover and register for updates from WeChat official accounts.

Facebook Messenger looks the strongest contender for the leader of Western messaging platforms, with 800M monthly active users, integration with Facebook Payments, and the expected announcement of a “bot store” at the F8 2016 conference on April 12.

Microsoft made an impressive set of announcements about opening Skype to developers, the Bot Framework, and integration with Cortana’s AI capabilities, during their Build conference in March 2016. At the same time, Skype will need a credible payment solution to compete with Messenger in the consumer market in the long run.

Telegram was an early leader of the Western messaging bot space introducing its Bot Platform in June 2015. The platform gained substantial traction with developers who created thousands messaging bots for the platform since then. Many of these bots are mere experiments and the lack of an official “bot store” reminds me of the early days of Palm OS developer ecosystem. It’s difficult to see how Telegram can escape its niche status given Facebook and Microsoft are opening their messaging platforms for developers.

It’s still very early days of the post-app era. Many questions remain. Will Apple, Snapchat, Viber or even Google join the game? Which messaging platforms will gain the most developer traction? Will discovery and recommendations of bots be done through a “bot store” or some other mechanism? What new use cases will stick across ecommerce, customer support and entertainment?

We will continue following this exciting space in our developer surveys and in our analysis of the messaging platform landscape. Stay tuned for the results of our first-ever bot developer survey coming with our upcoming Developer Experience Tracker.

— Michael