WhatsApp and the Case for Mobile Messaging Deals

Photograph by Jens Büttner/dpa via AP Images

Mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp have been on a tear lately, with WhatsApp growing its monthly active users from 200 million to 300 million in just four months. It should come as no surprise that WhatsApp is a prime candidate for acquisition, but there could be a lot more consolidation in the over-the-top communications world as well.

Recently I spoke to Andreas Bernström, chief executive officer of Rebtel, an international VoIP communications company that was providing over-the-top services before the term OTT was ever coined. He shared his views on how the inevitable consolidation in the OTT market would shake out, including what companies he believes would be acquisition targets and what companies would not.

The top target on Bernström’s list is, of course, WhatsApp. Not only has the text messaging startup grown into a giant with a subscriber base rivaling that of the multinational operators, it has a revenue stream; it charges customers 99 cents a year to keep using its service. Bernström said he believes it’s only a matter of time before Google snaps up the company.

There have been plenty of rumors circulating that Google has been haggling with WhatsApp about a buying price, though WhatsApp has denied that they are true. Google would be interested in WhatsApp for the same reason Facebook wanted Instagram. It doesn’t need the technology, but it could find plenty of uses for WhatsApp’s enormous global user base.

Along with WhatsApp, a few other companies make up the independent OTT communications elite. Cyprus’s Viber specializes in both VoIP calling and messaging, while Tango built up its considerable user base on the back of its video chat services. Meanwhile, Japan’s Line, Korea’s KakaoTalk, and China’s WeChat dominate their respective countries.

All of those companies have well over 100 million users each, which make them prime acquisition targets. Behind them, though, is an overabundance of messaging and chat apps: Kik Interactive, Pinger, TextNow, TextPlus—the list goes on and on.

If you ask Bernström, of all those companies there’s only one that’s guaranteed to get a big fat buyout offer from a major global Internet brand like Facebook or Google, and that company is Viber. It not only has 200 million registered users but global reach. While some of the others—particularly the Asian companies—may get picked up, Bernström thinks interest in these companies will only delve so deep.

“The interest in them is based solely on the size of their networks and the amount of use of their apps,” Bernström said. “The category winners are the ones that will get acquired.”

Mobile analyst Chetan Sharma agreed. The OTT players have managed to do a number on the communications industry by making messaging and voice so cheap, Sharma said. Not only is there now less revenue to go around, there are dozens more companies competing for that dwindling revenue.

“There will have to be consolidation,” Sharma said. “The [OTT companies] have not only shrunk the pot, but they’ve put more hands into the pot.”

The mobile operators are also just as likely to start buying up OTT communications companies if only for defensive purposes, Bernström said. Messaging and VoIP apps have started eating into carriers’ core service revenues, particularly overseas. So the carriers are looking for an edge they can to keep mobile users on their own talk and texting networks, hence the birth of “carrier OTT” apps like T-Mobile’s Bobsled, Telefónica’s Tu Go, and Orange’s Libon.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see carriers start shopping for companies in the app stores. While the Internet brands are looking to tap into the OTT players’ big networks of users, carriers already have big subscriber bases—the key, for them, is to keep those customers paying for their traditional voice and messaging services.

Bernström said that carriers are likely more interested in companies that can help them create OTT-style apps that interoperate with their SMS and voice networks. The No. 1 company on that list is Twilio, which is growing quickly among developers due to the simplicity of its communications APIs. (Twilio co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson will discuss this melding of the telecom and app spheres at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October.)

Twilio is already working with AT&T to open up the carrier’s SMS and voice APIs to enterprise developers. Bernström thinks it’s a good bet that AT&T will take that technology in-house by acquiring the startup.

While Twilio is definitely the big prize, there are other mobile voice and SMS specialists out there if other big global carriers are in a buying mood. Nexmo is currently on pace to handle 2 billion app-to-SMS and SMS-to-app transactions this year. Meanwhile, Germany’s Tyntec has developed a business similar to Twilio’s in Europe.

According to Sharma, almost every OTT player is now prettying themselves up in hopes of attracting a deep-pocketed suitor. That’s why most of them are so single-mindedly focused on growth over revenue.

Several of them are experimenting with revenue models—Pinger does advertising, Tango is experimenting with social gaming, WhatsApp has its subscription model—but Sharma said they have to tread cautiously. If they try to monetize too quickly or too much, they risk slowing their growth, which makes them less appealing acquisition targets.

Sharma also said he would add one more company to the list of OTT players grooming itself for acquisition: Rebtel. It’s small fry—boasting only 20 million registered users—compared with the massive OTT networks built by WhatsApp and Viber. But what it lacks in subscribers it makes up for in revenue.

Rebtel is on track to bring in $95 million to $100 million in revenue from its core base of about 1.3 million users who pay good money each month to connect with friends and relatives overseas. In fact, Rebtel has long been the second-largest OTT player behind Skype in terms of revenue, though WhatsApp may have recently surpassed it (WhatsApp doesn’t report revenue numbers).

“I like my business model because I target a committed group of users, and that group is only growing,” Bernström said.

You’ll notice, though, that Bernström isn’t placing his company high on the list of probable acquirees. Having a solid revenue stream certainly isn’t a bad thing, but Google, Facebook, and the carriers are probably much more interested in the gigantic user networks of WhatsApp, Viber, and Line, or the technological prowess of Twilio. Those big service providers already have perfectly functioning moneymaking machines. They’re just looking for ways to set those machines loose in the rapidly growing OTT communications space.

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