There are a lot of messaging systems available for mobile phones. Some have desktop counterparts, some are linked to social networks, and some apps just let you link all your chat accounts in one place.
Their role as so-called “SMS killers” is widely discussed, and understandably so when you consider SMSes typically cost between 20c and 80c per message.
You can get SMSes cheaper however, with 8ta’s prepaid voice service delivering particularly good value for money with its “send 5 per day and get 50 free for that day” offer.
By contrast, sending a 160 character message with an application like MXit can cost you 3c or less, depending on your data bundle.
Where instant messengers (IMs) shine though is in their ability to offer features SMS never could. Some let you know whether someone is busy typing a message to you; others offer message delivery and read receipts without incurring the additional cost that a network operator would charge for the same service.
A number of IMs also offer picture, video, and file transfers.
|Instant Messenger||Username||Text||Pictures||Files||VoIP||Video chat|
|Google+ Messenger||Google account||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes (Hangout)|
|iMessage + FaceTime||Apple ID||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes (FaceTime)|
|Facebook Messenger||Facebook account||Yes||Yes||No||No||No|
|Google Talk||Google account||Yes||Windows only||Windows only||Yes||Yes|
|KakaoTalk||KakaoTalk account||Yes||Yes||Video only||No||No|
IMs can also be classified by whether they require users to create a separate username by which they are identified on the network, or if they use another way to identify users.
For example, WhatsApp, Viber, and the recently launched ZiNG opt to use a cellphone number to identify users. This offers the benefit of being able to use an existing address book to communicate with people rather than having to build a whole new contact list.
This comes at a potential privacy trade-off however, since the apps not only need to know your phone number, they must also have access to your address book, or at least be given the phone numbers of your contacts.
BlackBerry Messenger removes the chore of creating and remembering the password for a new account by using a unique PIN given to each BlackBerry device to identify users. Users still have to build a contact list separate from their address book by exchanging PINs, however.
|Instant Messenger||Android||BlackBerry||iOS||Symbian||Windows Phone 7||J2ME|
|iMessage + FaceTime||No||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Google Talk||Yes||Yes||Third-party (text only)||Third-party (text only)||Third-party (text only)||Third-party (text only)|
|Skype||Yes||Third-party (text only)||Yes||Yes||No*||Third-party (text only)|
Another way to group IMs is by the platforms they support. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and iMessage each run on just one mobile platform for example.
Others, like Google Talk and Skype, aren’t strictly “mobile instant messengers” and actually began on the desktop.
Considering all these factors, is it possible to determine the “best” mobile instant messenger? The answer is, unfortunately, a most unsatisfying, no.
Each service has benefits and drawbacks, and in the end users are going to select a network based on where their friends are, not feature-set.