Why Smartphones Breed Proprietary Messengers

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There are plenty of channels for online messaging, says Peter Judge. Why do users need proprietary channels like BBM and ChatON?

Smartphones all have Internet access, and generally come with a bundled data plan. Users can chat with apps for Skype, Facebook, and any number of other services. So why do phone manufacturers all want to offer their own branded and proprietary service?

Samsung is the latest to join the field, with its ChatON service. It follows RIM’s very well-known BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service, and the more recent Apple iMessage service, available through iMessenger apps on the iPhone and iPad.

Walled gardens by other means?

To me, this comes as something of a surprise. Phone makers and mobile operators tried to make “walled gardens” when 3G phones first came out, back in the bad old days of WAP. They hoped that the Internet would need to be completely written into a chargeable form, delivered through their handsets.

That didn’t work out, but since then, operators have still had a sneaking desire to get users into a proprietary world, by offering their own spin on what people are doing on the net. Vodafone’s 360 service, which launched in 2009, did a superficially attractive job (well, it fooled us) of taming the then-complex world of mobile social media. Instead, it turned out to be a not-so-subtle way of pushing branded apps at users, and was unpopular.

Meanwhile, Apple has produced its own world, based around its tightly controlled App Store and iTunes, where it rules over the operators.

Vodafone moved to a more subtle model, welcoming the open world of Android apps, but channeling revenue its way, by allowing users to buy them on their phone bill, instead of with a credit card.

But operators and phone makers alike have generally had to give up their early hopes of revenue flooding out of walled gardens, because everyone knows the open Internet is better.

Why proprietary messaging?

Why, then, are proprietary messaging systems springing up?  BBM in particular has become so popular it was accused of being a tool used to organise the English looting of last month, and caused grave concern for governments such as India, who feared its high security and untraceability would allow it to support subversion.

The most obvious reasons, of course, are cheapness and the aforementioned privacy of the service. For most BlackBerry users, BBM is effectively free, and supports sophisticated messaging, including sharing content and setting up group chats.

This kind of thing is also available in services like Skype, but generally in a more-or-less clumsy app, which may not support all features on all phones. Amongst a group which has converged on a particular handset (BlackBerry or iPhone in particular), a proprietary messaging service makes a lost of sense.

In some ways, it’s a sort of halfway house between the limited simplicity of text messaging by SMS on mobiles and the sophistication of online chat systems, which might not properly work on all phones.

Samsung’s take on the idea looks like being more open – with a promise to support Android phones from the outset. This is a sensible move as – although it is increasing – Samsung still does not have the market share or recognition to really support a Samsung-only system.

There are markets where Samsung has very big penetration, and these have allowed it to push its own mobile operating system, Bada against the might of iOS and Android (a task which turned out to be beyond HP, when it abandoned its big plans for webOS recently).

It may well be able to establish its own messaging service – though I predict it will have to be more open than BBM or Apple’s iMessage to bear fruit.

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