I know most of you have heard a lot (probably too much) about the messaging app battle by now, what with Line, KakaoTalk, WeChat, Whatsapp, Viber and others battling across the region. Well, back here in Vietnam, it’s still a hot topic, partly because it’s still undecided. Where countries like Thailand are dominated by Line, Vietnam still remains mostly untapped. This prompted my friend Rita Nguyen, founder and CEO at Squar, to speculate that maybe these chat apps will cease to battle – then they’ll just co-exist. I think this rings true. After all, on my phone, I use Whatsapp with one set of friends and Viber for another set. Line and Zalo are also in the same boat.
This thesis rings especially true when you look at Vietnam-made Zalo, which just hit three million users last week. According to Vuong Quang Khai, project leader at VNG, the massive company behind Zalo:
Whereas other apps or startups may experience a sudden jump in user acquisition, Zalo has been steady.
Just this May I reported that Zalo hit two million users. If that’s steady, that’s a really fast steady. That’s one million users in two months. At that pace, Zalo could be set to hit six million users by the end of the year.
But Khai is actually not so impressed with the three million user number, and what he really cares about is the amount of texts going through the mobile platform: 30 million per day. It’s this number that Khai feels sets them apart from chat apps like Viber, which he feels does not lie in the same category as Line and KakaoTalk because Viber is commonly used for calling, not texting. It’s also a number that indicates the voracious thirst Vietnamese users have for texting.
The cool thing about the May announcement and today’s announcement is that slowly detractors within and outside VNG are finally warming up to the idea that Zalo is a product that can really compete with the likes of Line and KakaoTalk.
The future and competition
Currently, the Zalo team has no plans to internationalize the app as Khai wants to focus. VNG is quite set on building products specifically for the Vietnamese domestic market. This is rather perplexing to me as VNG is one of Vietnam’s biggest and most powerful consumer technology companies that could very easily throw its weight at attacking neighboring large markets. Khai sees this as a competitive advantage, especially in relation to Zalo’s competitors, Line and KakaoTalk, for which most of their product development is done outside of Vietnam.
This means that they cannot adapt as fast to the needs of the Vietnamese market, so that’s where we will focus.
Given that Zalo is paced to hit 6 million by the end of this year, I wonder what number VNG wants to hit before starting to look abroad, as the longer they wait, the more entrenched foreign competitors take over the rest of the Southeast Asian market.
Although English isn’t coming anytime soon, the team at Zalo is soon bringing out a desktop version as well as several mobile games that will have social integration with Zalo. Khai also said that a sticker store like Line and KakaoTalk aren’t coming to Zalo anytime soon (although free stickers are already offered), this is another interesting product design decision given that KakaoTalk and Line make up to 30 percent of their revenues from stickers.
(Editing by Steven Millward and Enricko Lukman)