Why did desktop messaging apps fail on mobile?

I’ll start with clarifying the provocative title – when I say desktop messaging apps (referring to QQ, Skype, Live Messenger, Google Talk, Facebook Chat etc.) “failed” on mobile, I’m referring to their relative underperformance across the board compared to the pure mobile messaging apps (WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, Line, KakaoTalk etc.). This defies conventional tech wisdom such as the power of network effects (the main driver behind the value of social network services) – why could these mobile upstarts so unanimously outperform the dominant messaging services with far greater user bases?

There are a few reasons I could think of.

One network to rule them all

To start off, it’s important to note one incredibly powerful network that has greatly leveled the playing field for mobile messaging startups – your phone book / contacts list. Phone numbers are by design unique identifiers, at a global level. Your phone book is usually far more important than your facebook friends’ list, as these are the people you’ve decided you need to be able to reach at a moment’s notice.

Mobile messaging apps such as WhatsApp use your phone book as a powerful boost to setting up your social network within these apps. This is analogous to Facebook / Linkedin asking to scan your email contacts list, but even more impactful (a stored phone number is usually more important than a stored email address). What’s more, because of the way smartphones work, mobile messaging apps generally have an easier time getting your permission to access your phone book (usually one click), compared to Facebook / Linkedin trying to access your gmail (need to type your username / password).

To make matters worse, few desktop messaging apps are designed to leverage your phone book. QQ or Google Talk has very little info to work on to merge your phone book contacts with your contacts on their network – any such process would likely be extremely manual with user approval entry by entry. Skype is perhaps the only desktop service that does somewhat better in this regard, as it has had to deal with phone-numbers for paying users of SkypeIn / SkypeOut.

Because of the above, network effects are actually working against the desktop messaging services, as they often poorly leverage the mobile social network (your phone book).

Cross-platform use cases work against the cross-platform services

At first glance, one could easily argue that the desktop apps benefit from being cross-platform (cross PC & mobile). What’s not to like about being able to chat with your friends, regardless of whether they are at their PC or just have their phones?

In practice, this again often work against the desktop apps. For one thing, users generally have very different communication habits when they are sitting in front of their PC versus holding their phone. Messaging on the PC is generally low commitment – your friends may not be online when you are, and even if they are, you often don’t know if your friend is watching a movie, playing a game, or working, so you don’t care whether they respond promptly or not.

Conversely, mobile messaging apps are meant to be always on, and market themselves as replacements for SMS. As such, mobile messaging can also be low commitment (useless texts), but carries with it a sense of immediacy not found in desktops. That’s why if you sign in to Skype/QQ/Google Talk on mobile you may prefer to make yourself invisible – you don’t want to be spammed on your phone with what you consider low impact messages/conversations from people idling at their desktops.

A sub bullet point here is that some mobile messaging apps have caught on via novel use cases – e.g. WeChat with the voicemail-like functionality. Such a function would sound ridiculous for a desktop app, but makes perfect sense on mobile.

As another aside, the difference in input speeds also make the cross-platform chat experience potentially undesirable to both parties.

At the end of the day, designed for mobile first versus “extending platform to mobile” leads to dramatically different use cases. Desktop apps make far too many compromises in being cross-platform to truly challenge the mobile first apps. A great example is actually to think about the other way round – how often would you use WhatsApp if it were available on desktops? Or even better, how often do you use iMessage, which is already cross-platform, on your Mac?

Geographic scope, focus and execution

This part is going to sound a bit fluffy. The first point is that few desktop apps have achieved global domination, which allows a mobile messaging startup to focus on cracking a specific geography and start growing its network. Indeed, there isn’t really one mobile messaging app that is ubiquitously used globally.

The second point is admittedly a bit of a conventional wisdom – mobile messaging startups have better focus, and are more agile, and therefore they have out-executed their desktop competitors. I do think this is the case, especially if you think about how WeChat caught on, but this shouldn’t be thought of as the sole reason. The above two sections cover some of the underlying enablers, and are more interesting from a strategy discussion perspective.

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