Whether you’re sharing your baby’s first steps on FaceTime or collaborating with your business partner on WhatsApp, it’s impossible to deny that technology has changed the way we communicate.
Emoji are part of our vocabulary, paying our share of the bill on iMessage is the norm, and augmented reality helps make everyday messages more fun.
Below, we explore how our iPhones have transformed the way we speak, look at the immense power of the Chinese messaging app WeChat, and consider where we’re headed in the future…
The rise of emoji
It’s hard to imagine what life was like before we had emoji on our phones.
Those grinning yellow faces have become part of our everyday lives – and whether you’re a fan of them or not, they’re hard to avoid. More than five billion of them are sent via Facebook Messenger every day, they were the subject of a movie that generated more than $200 million at the Box Office, and one emoji – the crying with laughter face – was controversially named the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year back in 2015.
In short, emoji are everywhere, and today they’re as much a part of our culture as the iPhone.
Along with social media, emoji have become so ensconced in our day-to-day lives that they have transformed the way we communicate.
Indeed, when we ‘talk’ online, we now prefer to use emoji to offer social clues, rather than typing. It has always been hard to infer the user’s emotions when communicating via our smartphones or computers, but with emoji, it’s possible to add depth, expression, and creativity to our conversations and digital persona.
One of the most interesting things about emoji is inferred meaning.
If you show an eggplant emoji to an older person, they’ll likely think of it as an eggplant – millennials, on the other hand, understand the emoji to be something else entirely, thanks to shared knowledge. In some ways, emoji have created an entirely new language, and one some have yet to grasp.
A slew of messaging apps
BlackBerry Messenger certainly wasn’t the first instant messaging service to exist, but it became one that gripped the world and transformed the way we chat.
Originally launching as a business platform, celebrities including Kim Kardashian helped to spearhead BlackBerry to success, and soon everyone – including President Obama – had a BlackBerry.
The technology was so popular that singers such as Sean Kingston, Lana Del Rey, and Soulja Boy all included BBM in their songs, singing “BBM me every day.”
When Apple released the iPhone, however, things changed and the idea of a physical QWERTY keyboard soon fell out of favor. iMessage came packaged with iOS in 2011, instant messaging went through something of a renaissance, and soon everyone could send messages, images, videos, GIFs and emoji to their friends and family without messages eating into their cell plan.
Since then, a whole host of features have been added to make iMessage more appealing to its users, such as 2017’s Animoji with the iPhone X, and more recently Memoji, allowing users to create their own emoji and send messages and videos as an animated character whenever they want.
But iMessage wasn’t alone in the instant messaging revolution.
Indeed, a whole host of competitors have entered the market, including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Viber. Data suggests WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in the world with 1.5 billion users, closely followed by Facebook Messenger with 1.3 billion users.
Viber, LINE, Telegram, and IMO are other key players, each connecting users around the world for free. And perhaps price is the biggest reason why instant messaging has changed the way we speak with our loved ones…
A fall in calls
Ten years ago, if you wanted to speak with a friend or business contact on the other side of the world, you’d pay a small fortune. Those prices remain in place today, with A&T charging users in the US an eye-watering 99 cents per minute to call the United Kingdom and Europe, and $1.29 per minute to call Australia. With our smartphones, those fees are a thing of the past.
But it’s not just international calling that has changed the way we think about paying to keep in touch. Just as we are seeing with cable networks and home entertainment packages in the United States, where 33 million homeowners cut cables with Dish and Comcast this year, switching to Internet-based services like Netflix and Amazon Video, we’re also seeing a shift in the way consumers access data plans.
Rather than spending upwards of $100 on a cellular data and iPhone plan, many consumers are opting to choose no contract cell phone plans and switching to SIM-only deals instead. Indeed, in the United Kingdom, it’s estimated that 20% of consumers pay for their cellular data plan separately from their phone, which is helping to bring down the average cost of phone plans and encouraging big networks to reduce their plans in order to remain competitive.
The same is happening in the United States, with many consumers opting for data-only and pay-as-you-go plans, moving away from the traditional packages to save money and customize their experience. T-Mobile offers consumers plans from as little as $3 per month, far removed from the average cost of data plans in the United States.
According to a report from the International Telecommunication Union, the average phone plan with 500MB of data in the US costs a staggering $85 per month, which is expensive when compared to China ($24.10) and as little as $8.80 in the United Kingdom. When you consider the fact we’re making fewer traditional phone calls than ever, unlimited inclusive minutes seem like a redundant offering.
Savvy consumers no longer need to be tied into expensive two-year-long plans with voice and SMS services – modern consumers only need data to survive in our always-on world. As such, we’ll likely see a new push towards a more streamlined and personalized cell service, with Google Fi being a great example of that.
The WeChat model
There’s no doubting that messaging apps have changed the way we communicate, but today they do much more than that. Open Facebook Messenger, and you’ll see options to play games with friends, contact businesses, connect to Spotify or even order food.
On iMessage, you can send money with Apple Pay Cash, play your favorite music and access the iMessage App Store, home to hundreds of third-party services designed to make life easier and keep users engaged with their smartphones. Today, messaging apps are much more than messaging apps.
Nowhere in the world is that truer than in China. Home to more than 690 million smartphone users, China has an ‘always on’ culture, and consumers use their phones in virtually every part of their lives.
WeChat, developed by Tencent Holdings, is much more than a messaging app – it’s China’s ‘app for everything’ allowing consumers to do everything from booking appointments to paying for lunch.
WeChat is more than just chat software – it’s a lifestyle.
Within the app, you can book tickets, rent cars, have food delivered, chat with friends, give tips, interact with businesses, and buy products from just about any e-commerce brand in the country. WeChat is also the country’s most popular channel for accessing news and other forms of media content, but it has been criticized for its lack of security features.
With competition laws in the West so tight, the chances are that we’ll never see an app become as powerful or dominant as WeChat in the United States, but the business model shows just how important communication can be to consumers. Earning 10.69 billion yuan in the first quarter of 2018 alone, WeChat is one of China’s biggest success stories – but with brands such as Google and Facebook planning re-entry into the country, its time at the top may be limited.
The future of chat
It’s hard to deny just how much the way we communicate has changed over the past ten years – part, in thanks, to the iPhone. FaceTime helps families on opposite sides of the world keep in touch, WhatsApp is great for everyday chat and business, and new technologies, like augmented and virtual reality, 360-degrees cameras, and the rise of animatronic lovers are set to take our connections to the next level. It’s hard to imagine what the future of tech will bring, but it’s clear it will make keeping in touch easier, simpler, and more life-like than ever.