Chat apps have overtaken SMS by message volume, but how big a disaster is that for carriers?

There’s a reason why mobile carriers are scared of third-party messaging apps such as WhatsApp, and here it is: people are now sending more messages over these services than they are text messages.

We now know this for a fact, courtesy of analysts at Informa. As Europe’s digital chief, Neelie Kroes, greeted the news on Monday morning:

Informa says 2012 saw nearly 19 billion messages sent over these apps each day around the world, versus 17.6 billion SMS messages. The analyst house reckons the contrast will be even starker in 2014, with 21 billion text messages projected, against almost 50 billion app-based messages.

As you will note, this suggests that SMS volumes will continue to increase, at least in the short term. Nonetheless, it is clear that the big growth is to be found in, er, the data coffee – spurred along by the likes of Nokia(s nok), which is now selling phones with dedicated WhatsApp keys.

However, things may not be as bleak for the mobile operators as they seem.

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First off, while the volumes of non-SMS messages has overtaken that of traditional texts, the user numbers remain significantly lower – although how much lower is a bit unclear.

According to Informa analyst Pamela Clark-Dickson, there were 3.5 billion SMS users in 2012. Regarding the chat apps, Clark-Dickson only took 6 into account, namely WhatsApp, BlackBerry(s bbry) Messenger, Viber, Nimbuzz, Apple’s iMessage(s aapl) and KakaoTalk. At the end of 2012, she said, there were 586.3 million users of these platforms, but that’s not taking into account other giants such as Facebook(s fb) Messenger for Android(s goog) (somewhere between 100-500 million installations) and China’s TenCent (around 300 million users).

Even if there were, let’s say, a billion chat app users, the disparity between message volume and user numbers shows that people who use these “over-the-top” (OTT) apps use them more frequently than those who use SMS – specifically, the average OTT app user sends 32.6 messages a day, and the average SMS user just 5 texts. This stands to reason because OTT apps are generally free to use, so we should therefore be wary of assuming that every OTT message represents a “lost” SMS from a revenue perspective, in much the same way as it’s illogical to claim that a free “pirated” song download represents a lost sale.

Those chat app users are probably also SMS users, because – for example – WhatsApp is of little use when you’re trying to message someone on a different platform (or someone with a basic dumbphone). There, SMS is and remains the great leveller: any mobile phone can use it. This is particularly important for some enterprises.

Whither Joyn?

And then we have a big unanswered question: even when SMS tails off, how big a chunk of the IP-based messaging market will the carriers themselves own?

Thing is, Informa’s analysis of the market does not include projections for Joyn, the industry-wide drive to create a common, interoperable messaging and file-sharing platform that works on all (or at least most) operators’ devices — Joyn has only just kicked off, so there are no real takeup figures from which to extrapolate. Precedent suggests that the mobile industry is incapable of acting in concert, but that doesn’t mean it can’t buck the trend when its back is against the wall.

“Mobile operators do have the opportunity to provide their own IP-based messaging applications,” Clark-Dickson noted.

And then we have services such as Telefonica’s Tu Go and Rogers’s One Number that extend traditional handset functionality onto the desktop. These services heavily blur the line between SMS and IP-based messaging – if the carriers can pull off this sort of thing while monetizing it in some way, what does it matter whether the medium used is technically SMS or something else?

Also don’t forget that carriers can build offerings around these third-party apps. For example, WhatsApp has partners with 3 Hong Kong and RCom, which sell flat-rate bundles specifically for WhatsApp use while at home or roaming. It may break the principle of net neutrality, but it’s a tactic some carriers are employing.

Either way, though, what’s clear is the speed at which all this is happening. The SMS is 20 years old and chat apps have only been around for around 5 years. Although we should take care when predicting the results, the trend of IP-based messaging replacing SMS certainly appears unstoppable.