As more people choose to send messages through free apps instead of paying to use their smartphones’ standard texting services, valuations of companies that make the apps are soaring. Facebook’s (FB) $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp came just five days after Rakuten (4755:JP), the largest e-commerce company in Japan, snapped up messaging service Viber for $900 million. SoftBank (9984:JP) is seeking to buy a stake in Japan’s top mobile messenger, Line (035420:KS). Even BlackBerry (BBRY) could cash in. With 85 million users, its BBM messaging service suddenly looks ripe for a spinoff.
Buying a messaging service is a quick way for tech companies to add tens of millions of customers. “Anybody in the technology space that has a pillar product around conversations and connecting people together could be a potential buyer,” says Brian Blau, a social media analyst at Gartner (IT).
With all the money on the table, messaging services face pressure to expand. Despite 450 million users worldwide and a dominant position in the U.S., WhatsApp is still an also-ran in Asia. WeChat, owned by Chinese Internet companyTencent (700:HK), is China’s top messaging service with 272 million users. Since Facebook is banned in China, WhatsApp probably won’t make headway there. WhatsApp didn’t respond to requests for comment. KakaoTalk is the leader in South Korea, where it’s already on 93 percent of the country’s roughly 36 million smartphones. Line, controlled by South Korea’s Naver, has 370 million users and is entrenched in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand.