Instant messaging apps on the rise. Which is the best one?

Instant messaging seems the killer app of the Internet today. With the likes of WhatsApp, Line, Viber and other IP-based messengers, mobile and desktop users alike can enjoy messaging each other, regardless of platform.

Messenger services are so popular that even BlackBerry decided to launch the company’s BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) app and service outside of their own BlackBerry operating system. BBM launched as a cross-platform app, available for iOS and Android as of October this year. This brings the total number of BBM users to about 80 million across 60 million BlackBerry smartphones and 20 million Android and iOS devices.

Still, this is not as big as the user-base of apps like LINE and WhatsApp, which both exceed 200 million as of third quarter of 2013. The popularity of these apps has been bolstered by their launch of free and premium stickers. In fact, LINE is reportedly earning $10 million per month from premium stickers and $27 million monthly from in-game purchases. The benefit of these applications is that they’re not only chat apps, but platforms for delivering content. Case in point: LINE runs its own social network, where users can also post status updates, photos and other multimedia.

But apart from the cross-platform nature of these apps, another benefit is their being cross-device. For instance, LINE and Viber run on both mobile and desktop platforms. Viber, for one, offers a seamless way of switching from PC to phone, in which your call does not get dropped even switching across devices. Both LINE and Viber also offer video-calling on their desktop platforms, rivaling the likes of Skype.

Let’s not forget Facebook and Google, which run their own Facebook Messenger and Google Hangouts, respectively. These applications also run across different devices, be they desktop or mobile. What is left to apps like WhatsApp and BBM, then, which are limited for use on mobile devices? Well, for one, a piece of software called BlueStacks enables users to run Android apps on their Windows or OS X machines, and it even comes with its own app repository. It’s not an elegant solution, but it’s one good option for running WhatsApp on PC.

Does this make apps that run on both desktop and mobile better than those that run only on smartphones and tablets?

Hardly. That’s because a chat app is only as good as your friends who use it. Take for example a new app called Telegram, built by the creators of Russian social network VKontakte. Telegram offers privacy through peer-to-peer encryption, and the app also provides a self-destruct mechanism for messages, ensuring they don’t fall into the wrong hands. It’s like Snampchat, but for more serious users. To date, the app only has about 100,000 users. If you try installing it on Android or iPhone, good luck with finding friends.

This means the value of chat apps is more complicated than simple user count, features and security. It’s a dynamic that involves these factors, but in the end, it’s who you’re talking to that will matter. If your friends are mostly on one chat app, that’s where you will likely gravitate to. Which means you most likely have more than one chat app on your device or desktop computer.