WhatsApp and Line already have almost 700 million users between them and Snapchat claims to share 400 million pictures a day, but these huge numbers are just the start.
Social messaging apps -- services that use a smartphone or tablet's wifi connection or mobile internet data allowance to send ‘free' multimedia messages -- will have been responsible for a combined 27.5 trillion messages by the end of 2013.
And as incredible as this figure sounds, according to research and analysis firm Ovum, use is set to explode in 2014. It forecasts that 71.5 trillion messages will be sent using the apps over the next 12 months as they become a standard part of smartphone functionality.
So what's driving the trend? Although Ovum claims that the apps represent social media use for the mobile first age -- i.e., unlike Facebook, Myspace and even Twitter, they didn't start out on the desktop and have to adopt to smartphone use. They were built for phones from the very beginning -- that's just one aspect.
Before smartphones took over, mobile phones were primarily used for sending text messages and even today, text messaging is still more popular than voice calling. However, text messages cost money and ‘technically' social messages don't.
So they represent a much more cost-effective, universal form of messaging that doesn't break the bank every time a user gets into a back-and-forth conversation with a friend on the other side of the world. But, as Ovum points out, they are also at the forefront of the development of social networking and social media.
A standard feature on new devices
But perhaps the biggest indication that the apps are about to hit the mainstream is that handset makers have started building social messaging functionality into the device as standard. OK, BlackBerry's BBM service is almost as old as the company itself but it is now available as an app for iPhones and Android devices. Likewise, since 2011, all iPhones and iPads have been able to send and receive iMessages -- free text and multimedia messages -- as long as the recipient also has an Apple device.
Microsoft has Skype, which it is busily redeveloping for optimum performance on Windows Phone handsets, and Google has the Hangouts app. And as smartphones become cheaper and more easily available and network coverage improves in emerging markets, the growth of social messaging will continue at pace. It's why Nokia's Asha Phones -- feature phones with some ‘smart' abilities -- are sold with WhatsApp preinstalled and backed into the operating system.
However, this growing popularity will also mean that wannabe competitors could become two-a-penny and that as existing services hit critical mass, they are going to have to find a way of making more money -- whether through advertising, subscription fees, or tie-ins with network operators in particular countries.
Ovum's work on the subject, the "Social Messaging 2014 Trends to Watch Report" goes as far as to say that the established services will build out their offerings beyond messaging to incorporate other services, such as gaming, payments, contextually aware or location-based features and become social media platforms in their own right.