Can Viber keep up the pace and remain free?

Questions about the cost of VoIP apps

A regular user of free mobile messaging apps like WhatApps or calls like Viber should be asking the same questions. Are these services actually free? For how long can they keep their business running without making me pay?

The free messaging app ecosystem has exploded in the last to years, with different organisations offering the same thing using specific branding. If WhatsApp is the most recognisable of them all, newcomers on the space are pushing innovation boundaries, at least on the user experience front. See Line's example: backed by reputable Korean blue-chip Naver, the core texting and voice app tries to monetise the service offering premium emoticon and sticker packs, gifting, as well as cross promotion of games and casual apps for its teenage-focused market.

This is the take from a fairly new free messenger that just reached 100 million users. The more veteran Viber, synonymous of free calls on cellular data and WiFi, is also trying to capitalise its 160 million user base and introduce the service in the competitive Asian markets. In a recent interview, Viber CEO Talmon Marco hinted that the introduction of stickers could be an avenue to explore in-app purchases, an option to be considered in future versions.

Never say never

With growing competition and the mobile operators questioning how these services fit in their traditional business models, it isn't clear that small micro payments will be a long term solution. While iOS is likely to convert well, Android markets and other platforms lack the payment ease iTunes offers to iPhone owners.

Is there a way to support the WhatsApps on every platform? Skype's history, moving hands from eBay to end up at Microsoft, suggests the aim of the VoIP players is to eventually sell to the big fish. Telcos could be interested in developing competing services or directly acquiring some household brand, hence the importance of a strong loyal user base. Other likely buyers are companies like Facebook, which could also benefit from an acquisition instead of cloning one of the multiple services that already exist, as TNW points out.

In the end, it's still early days for free messaging and voice apps. They are trying to figure out how to use the user numbers in ethical ways — not selling user data, for instance — and remain viable. It looks like emerging markets in Asia are the focus for this year, which could bring unexpected surprises, like Line's adoption in Europe without much localisation or advertising.

Image by Brandon Warren