Asian rivals hot on heels of WhatsApp

Coming to a smartphone near you: apps that say WeChat, Line or KakaoTalk and not WhatsApp.

These days, Asian mobile messaging applications are creating more buzz and closing in on WhatsApp, the market leader from Silicon Valley.

The one to watch in particular is China's WeChat, which is said to be planning an initial public offering in Singapore, reported the China Daily yesterday. Its parent company Tencent has denied this, though it registered a company in Singapore earlier this month, business registry records show.

Known as Weixin in Chinese, WeChat has acquired around 400 million registered users since its launch in 2011 and is gaining popularity in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and also Singapore.

"Now, a lot of people in Singapore are using Weixin," said Mr Thomas Foo, head of the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar Owners Association. "These days, I get a lot more friend requests on it," he said.

Other up and coming Asian messaging apps include Line from Japan with 200 million users, India's Nimbuzz with 150 million and South Korea's KakaoTalk with 100 million.

Said Singapore-based Internet entrepreneur Sun Ho: "Line has really cute emoticons and stickers which I use to stay in touch with my family, who may not be in the same town all the time."

The Asian upstarts have turned up the heat on WhatsApp, which launched a voice-messaging function recently to stay ahead of the competition. WhatsApp leads the pack with its 300 million monthly active users - seen as a more important indication of a service's influence. WeChat has 195 million.

WhatsApp may have the first- mover advantage, but some think the Chinese service will one day overtake its American rival.

"WhatsApp has been complacent and stagnant with its feature set, while WeChat and the rest of the apps are innovating very quickly and pouring money into marketing," said Beijing-based Internet entrepreneur James Tan.

The Chinese service has been "engaging well-known figures such as Lionel Messi to boost its international appeal", he said, referring to the football star.

Mr Fang Xingdong, chief of Internet business consultancy Chinalabs, agreed that WeChat has no problems with becoming top dog. "It's the first Chinese Internet product that has gone beyond China to become globalised," he said.

Unlike other Chinese Internet firms like search engine Baidu, WeChat is not held back by language or culture, he added.

A large home market is an advantage too - WeChat has capitalised on China's 388 million mobile Internet users to grow quickly.

India has also seen the rise of messaging apps like Nimbuzz - founded in the Netherlands but now based in India to tap its 78.7 million mobile Internet users.

Ultimately, competition is likely to heat up, as unlike the social platform market led by Facebook, the chat crown is still up for grabs, say observers. Said Mr Tan: "This is a new area where no one has the clear global advantage so it's 'land grab' time."

Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee

Background story

In the chat race


Based in China, founded in January 2011

Registered users: Around 400 million

Features: Voice messages, video chats and locating nearby users


Japan, June 2011

Registered users: 200 million

Features: Stickers, free calls, games and emoticons


India; started in 2006 in the Netherlands

Registered users: 150 million

Features: Virtual coins to buy items like avatars and gifts


South Korea, March 2010

Registered users: 100 million

Features: Games and celebrity accounts


United States, July 2009

Users: 300 million monthly active users

Features: Photo sharing and voice messages

Source: TechCrunch, Tech in Asia