What’s the difference between Instant Messaging (IM) and normal messaging/email? It used to be that IM was real-time and only allowed communication when both parties were online — that’s no longer the case since you can now bug people offline as well. It used to be that IM gave a status icon next to who was online and who was busy with real life — now you can hide your status while still lurking around to see if others are online. And most importantly, it used to be that IM allowed people using different IM apps to communicate seamlessly with each other over the open Jabber protocol – now there are countless, walled-garden style apps, each vying to keep you and your friends within their closed systems.
So basically ‘IM’ is now pretty much just ‘M’ or more accurately ‘S’ (Sharing) where the participants are the product up for sale on the Big Data obsessed, ad-fueled online marketplace. In my opinion (and you are free to disagree), it is just another service that makes communication more difficult than it should be!
On that rather sarcastic note, here are the 7 must-have IM apps that we have cherry-picked for every use case – because it’s not just about communication anymore, it’s about emojis and stickers and themes and media and location sharing and anything but meeting the other person face to face!
#1 – The Big One
If you were thinking WhatsApp, here’s a shocker: it’s WeChat. With 600 million registered users, it takes the crown of being the biggest and just about every feature imaginable is included for your IM’ing pleasure. The parent company, Tencent, is no less surprising in its soaring Chinese ambitions – it is the fifth-largest Internet company in the world after Google, Amazon, Alibaba, and Ebay as of October 2014! Bulk of WeChat’s user base is from China but it is going global in a big way with a marketing campaign that features His Highness Lionel Messi.
- Group walkie-talkie mode
- Free Voice and Video Chat
- Both Mobile & Desktop app
- Real-time location so you don’t have to explicitly tell others where you are, like Foursquare
- Social networking feature where you can create a personal timeline and find people nearby
I am not too crazy about video chatting but Skype is pretty much the most reliable service to use for getting some Face-time with parents, lover, children, clients or slobbery pets! It has standard IM features and that futuristic language translation looks awesome!
#2 – The Other Big One
The US counter to the Chinese sleeper hit is WhatsApp which trails slightly behind WeChat with 590 million registered users. It has a stronghold in countries like India, Spain, Mexico and Germany with over 20 million monthly active users and is the outright dominant app in Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia.
It is the app to install if you are new to IM space since it keeps things simple and offers very sparse feature set – everything that you need and nothing that you don’t. The best thing is that WhatsApp is currently ad-free but notice the italics since after the famous $19 billion bid from Facebook one wonders for how long!
- Seamless phone number based registration – no pesky email signups
- Everyone you know and their parents probably have installed it!
- Optional read receipts
- New PC app and at last, voice calling!
Facebook Messenger is probably the closest to WhatsApp in terms of reach and now that both are under the same company, expect features to overlap between the two or maybe even a merger.
#3 – The One with Stickers
What do you do when smileys and emojis aren’t expressive enough? You reply with a sticker obviously! Most IM apps are doing stickers these days but it was started by Line which continues to hold a considerable lead over others with a massive sticker collection to choose from. The Japanese app enjoys 300 million registered users that send a billion stickers every day!
- Full-featured social networking service: Post your day-to-day activities to your Timeline or comment on your friends’ posts
- Connect directly with your favorite celebrities and companies
- Search chat room names and messages
- Free voice and video calls using both mobile and PC app
KakaoTalk is hugely popular in South Korea and offers great features that perform well and look good.
#4 – The One(s) from Google
Let’s count – there was Google Talk that became G+ Messenger that became Hangouts, there’s Google Voice for US users, and now there’s Google Messenger which does what exactly? Google’s product strategy might be confusing but they are keeping things simple with the feature set — the only fun thing to do on Hangouts is to set a Smiling Poop Emoji under “Set your mood for today”!
- It is made by Google so you can be sure of continued development or at least another rebranding!
- It integrates with your Gmail account so everything is backed-up
- Less battery drain since it uses GCM framework
Apple bundles its iMessage app on every iDevice and it is much less confusing than Google’s offerings. It handles both IM and SMS functionality seamlessly within the same interface.
#5 – The One that Disappears
They say the kids (or Generation Z, if you will) are officially over Facebook. I’m too old to care what the kids are doing these days but one has to admire the platform they now inhabit – Snapchat. It had a gimmicky yet innovative pitch of sharing photos that self-destruct after 10 seconds which then got expanded to videos and then obviously came stickers, but all along the company has been moving and planning very sure-footedly – launching just the right amount of features at the right time. They also turned down a $3 billion offer by Facebook which led Zuckerberg & Co. to begrudgingly drop 6 times that amount on WhatsApp! It is highly popular in the US, UK and the Nordic countries.
- Stickers are location based – they only show up for use when you are at a particular place
- “Stories” is a new feature that allows you to share short videos and photos about your day to all your friends. And in true Snapchat fashion, they self-destruct after 24 hours.
Hike is a Made in India app which has a neat feature for Indian users: free SMS!
#6 – The Secure One
IM for the paranoid is no longer a scary looking command prompt that makes beep-boop sounds but a slick modern app that proudly proclaims that it’ll be free forever without ads! In a way Telegram is like WhatsApp but with solid encryption and a Snapchat like self-destruct feature. If you distrust the big companies with your data and don’t need fancy features then Telegram will be happy to find a home in your app launcher!
- Uses a distributed infrastructure with that connect users to the closest possible server resulting in fast response times
- Your message history is stored for free in the Telegram cloud along with photos
- Create large group chats of up to 200 members, send broadcasts to up to 100 contacts at a time and share large files
#7 – The Old Big One
Blackberry devices have lost their enterprise supremacy to iPhones but the venerable BlackBerry Messenger or BBM is still appealing due to its robust take on instant messaging. It gained cross platform support in 2013, and offers unique features to Android, iOS and Windows users that makes it suitable for professionals and IM enthusiasts.
- You can schedule messages to be sent after a set time
- Ability to undo sent message!
- Two-way opt-in that ensures nobody can message you until you specifically allow them
If we missed your favorite IM app do write a comment on how it compares to our list of 7 Instant Messaging Apps Everyone Should Have!