Facebook on course to be the WeChat of the West, says Gartner

It’s the beginning of the end for smartphone apps as we have known and tapped on them, reckons Gartner. The analyst is calling the start of a “post-apps” era, based on changes in consumer interactions that appear driven, in large part, by the rise of dominant messaging platforms designed to consume more and more of mobile users’ time and attention. It figures messaging apps will become more popular than social media apps within the next two years.

In a new report, based on a survey of mobile users in the US, China and the UK, Gartner’s reading of the app usage tea-leaves shows signs of messaging platforms cannibalizing other apps, with for example, usage of dedicated video apps declining four percentage points between the 2015 and 2016 editions of the survey. (The analyst polled just over 3,000 respondents for the 2016 survey, the results of which it’s releasing now, with the poll taking place between August 26 and October 13.)

Usage of standalone maps apps also shrunk by three percentage points, year-over-year, according to Gartner’s data. And social media app usage reduced by two percentage points vs messaging app usage growing by three percentage points over the same period.

Shopping (which results in something tangible being delivered), and personal assistant apps (which are designed to shortcut queries) bucked the slide, growing by four percentage points apiece.

“It’s a move away from using native applications to something else,” says Gartner research director Jessica Ekholm, discussing the survey in an interview with TechCrunch. “Consumers are getting less interested in using applications; there are far too many applications. Some of the surveys that we’re doing we see that there’s a stablization in terms of app usage. How many apps they’re downloading, how much time they’re spending finding new applications — it’s just that people are getting a little bit disinterested in that. People are spending more time with the apps that they’ve already got.

“The other thing is, with the digital assistants, we’re seeing that people are switching towards ‘hey I just want an answer now and quick’ — so I might as well go with a digital assistant rather than ‘oh which app is that one? Let me think… no, I’m just going to ask Siri or whoever’.”

Social media losing out to messaging is not surprising when you consider how much personal sharing has migrated to more bounded/non-public messaging platform. The analyst notes how “incredibly sticky” messaging apps have become — with 72 per cent of survey respondents using these types of apps at least once per day, according to its survey data.

In recent years Facebook has also made a conscious effort to drive usage of its Facebook-branded messaging app Messenger, by closing off the ability of mobile users to view Facebook messages unless they download and use the Messenger app. That strategy may have cannibalized some usage of Facebook’s main social media app but it’s clearly driven usage of Facebook Messenger — to beyond one billion monthly users. The company also owns the WhatsApp messaging platform, which also has more than a billion users and is hugely popular outside the US, in regions such as Europe and South America.

In China, the homegrown WeChat is the dominant messaging force for monopolizing mobile users’ attention, via a platform that plugs in all sorts of additional third party services, from ride-hailing to banking to food ordering. (Gartner’s poll puts WeChat’s popularity there at a staggering 95 per cent usage). This so-called ‘super app’ model was pioneered by WeChat, but players such as Facebook are clearly gunning to clone the approach for mobile users in the West — and there are signs the company is sucking the oxygen out of other apps, even if a Facebook-owned platform is not yet the only place to go for everything.

Can WeChat’s ‘super app’ model be replicated in the West? After all, China’s firewalled Internet and differences in cultural attitudes could also be playing a role in WeChat’s success. But Ekholm reckons it’s only a matter of time before the US has its own WeChat-esque go-to platform.

“I think it can be and I think we’re heading towards that, quite frankly,” she says, when asked if the WeChat model can be replicated. “Because it is moving towards stablization of the usage of applications, and you get into digital assistants coming in and people used to using one avenue or one channel to get information. And also what the likes of Facebook is doing — and everyone’s trying to do as well with the messaging applications that are becoming more of a platform — they’re moving in that direction.

“It’s just a case of if the user experience is great others will follow because that’s what we generally see with consumers. If the user experience is great the early adopters are going to tell their friends and family, etc, etc. That’s how it goes. And then we see more early mainstream adoption, so I do think it is moving in that direction.


Facebook on course to be the WeChat of the West, says Gartner

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