Video chat

The chat app wars are not exactly new, and we have been closely observing both Asia-based and international firms like LINE, WeChat, KakaoTalk, Viber, WhatsApp and even Google’s Hangouts and Facebook Messenger. Instant messaging apps are out to grab mindshare and loyalty, and developers have been adding features left and right, in the aim of offering better value.

Cross-platform instant messaging app Imo Messenger has recently launched an update to its Android client, which now features video calling. The update has been incorporated in the startup’s “Imo beta” fork, which is aimed at early adopters who want to test out new features before they appear in the more mainstream Imo version. Both releases are free downloads from Google Play. An iOS variant is also available, and Imo is likewise accessible from the web.

With the Imo beta update, Android users can now do video calls with Imo contacts from around the world. The video-calling feature is limited to the Android app, though. But this gets Imo’s foot in the door of the potentially lucrative video-calling market, setting it square against the likes of Skype and Google Hangouts.

“This has been a very exciting year for us so far. In addition to this video chat announcement, we recently launched Broadcasts, our new social discovery feature,” said CEO Ralph Harik. “We are committed to providing the best in instant messaging and social discovery and are looking forward to launching video chat on our iOS and Android apps in the coming months.”

What sets Imo apart?

Imo runs on iOS, Android and web app, and offers its own messaging network, which in itself is a good mix of private messaging and broadcast-type social feeds. Imo also highlights its location-based targeting, through which users can find broadcasts based on their proximity.

What sets Imo apart from the competition is its cross-platform nature. Imo’s cross-platform network includes Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, AOL, ICQ, Jabber, Vkontakte, Hyves, Steam and even supports Facebook Chat. Imo also supports multi-user logins from within the app. For instance, users can login to simultaneous Facebook accounts.

Unfortunately, Skype has recently removed access to its own messaging service, which has left Imo users unable to chat with Skype contacts through the app. Could this move to video calling have influenced Skype’s decision to bar Imo from accessing its network?

This update comes on the heels of Imo’s recent launch of its Broadcasts feature, which lets users find other users with the same interests. In May, Imo raised US$13.3 million Series B funding from one of the company’s co-founders, angel investor Georges Harik, who is actually Ralph’s brother and also one of Google’s first 10 employees. The funds are intended to build new features and expand the company’s network. The company earlier raised US$10.3 million Series A in 2010.

Imo is not exactly a new startup, as it has been around since 2007, offering cross-platform support for popular messaging services, during a time when there were very few viable options for web-based instant messaging clients — something useful among the non-Windows and non-Mac using crowd. While the likes of Meebo have fast faded into obscurity (that particular company was “acqui-hired” by Google”), Imo still offers regular updates to its mobile apps, and is actually a viable contender against the various chat apps that have risen in popularity to date.

But at seven million users sending 50 million messages per day, it is nowhere near the meteoric rise LINE has gone through (200 million users to date). Still, I’d wait for Imo to actually launch video calling on iOS, its web app and the mainstream Android app, to see whether it makes a bigger dent on its competitors’ active user numbers.

Messaging apps going social?

Part of the pull and stickiness of modern messaging apps are their social features. LINE, for instance, supports chat groups and message boards. These apps also have a particular highlight for stickers, which is very popular among Asian consumers. To me, the main benefit from Imo is its integration with other messaging networks, which can be an advantage to a user who does not want to run multiple messaging apps, or who wants just a single point of entry for his or her messaging services. It helps that Imo keeps track of chat history, so you don’t forget the context of a conversation.

Imo is beefing up its arsenal, and we certainly don’t think messaging apps will stop their push for more users, better engagement and bigger revenue. I’ve always thought that messaging is an exciting and mature industry ripe for disruption again and again.

Featured image credits: Video call / Shutterstock