Chat apps overtake traditional SMS texting

Chat apps -- like WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage -- are now more popular than SMS, a service that has been around for decades.

We use our phones to send billions of text messages every year. According to a new report from Informa Telecoms & Media, we sent more than 36.6 billion in 2012, but the way we send messages is changing. “Chat apps” -- like WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage -- are now more popular than SMS, a service that has been around for decades.

With chat apps, you can send sounds and pictures, and you are able to see if the other person is there, able to reply.

According to Informa’s Pamela Clark-Dickson, texting seems different when you use a chat app. It feels like you’re on a computer, sending instant messages.

“It’s more of a real-time, two-way conversation between two people,” she says.

Chris Silva, a telecommunications analyst with the Altimeter Group, says that has a big effect on how many messages we send. It has become a habit to send short messages in quite succession.

“I’m sending thousands of messages, not just one, two, five, ten, fifteen, twenty,” he says.

Chat app users send more than six times as many messages, which is bad news for mobile operators. For years, text messages have been a real cash cow.

“Any of this ‘over-the-top messaging’ bites into that revenue because nobody is paying for these messages,” Silva says. 

You download an app and use your data plan. Clark-Dickson says mobile phone users recognize chat apps are less expensive.

“It’s perceived to be free for them, because they’re not paying per SMS, or they’re not paying for an SMS bundle.”

Now, the app makers are able to sell ads, and they’re the ones making money.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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