While the mobile phone has evolved to become an impressively capable tool in a range of areas – web browsing, music, games, camera, organiser and more – communications remains its central feature. And with the increasing penetration of smartphones and apps, a number of titles have been launched which are designed to give users access to a range of enhanced comms features and services.

According to recent research from Flurry, communications apps perform well both in terms of frequency of use, and in long-term user retention.

While there is a lot of competition in this space, with Facebook having its own messaging app and Skype and WhatsApp generating many of the headlines, other apps are also able to boost impressive user bases. One example is Nimbuzz, which earlier this year passed the 100 million user mark – a figure few apps are likely to equal.

Vikas Saxena, CEO of the company (pictured), told Mobile World Live that in some countries and regions, such as South Asia and the Middle East, it is “the dominant mobile platform”.

“What’s interesting is that a big portion of usage tends to occur between users across multiple countries. This shows that Nimbuzz is a global solution that helps people connect for free (or at a very low cost) on a global scale,” he said.

Cross platform support

While some messaging apps are the products of the platform companies, and therefore tied to a specific OS – such as Apple’s iMessage or RIM’s BBM – in most cases successful products connect users across devices types. In addition to supporting a full range of smartphone platforms including Android, iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Phone and Symbian, Nimbuzz also offers a Java app to enable feature phone users to access its services.

“It’s crucial that Nimbuzz is and remains available across all platforms”, Saxena said.

“Java phone users continue to grow in most of the emerging markets, and will gradually slow, but the installed user base is still relevant and large enough to remain relevant for another three-to-five years,” he continued.

In addition, while the ongoing struggles at RIM have been well documented, Nimbuzz said that BlackBerry remains an important platform for the company. “Blackberry still has a strong market foothold in many emerging markets and lot of brand loyalty – if our users demand Blackberry, then it will remain important for Nimbuzz. We have recently updated our Blackberry app and it is tightly integrated with BBM”, the executive noted.

Working with developers

Earlier this year, Nimbuzz opened its Messenger API to developers, via its Chat Buddy Developer Program. At the time of the launch, the company said that this “allows developers to build chat buddies across various verticals such as cricket, astrology, shopping, games, news, besides utilities such as ticketing, movie reviews, classifieds, etc”.

Saxena said: “So far we’re thrilled to say that the response has been phenomenal. We received hundreds of developer request and currently more than 35 app developers are live with their application. Many more are in the pipeline and in various stages of approval from our server team to make certain that the quality of each chat buddy is up to Nimbuzz standards.”

The role of operators and manufacturers

The growth of so-called “over-the-top” services has widely been identified as posing a threat to the core voice and messaging propositions of operators, with research firm Ovum stating US$54 billion of SMS revenue will be lost to the new entrants by 2016.

However, Saxena notes that Nimbuzz is working with operators to “make sure their ARPU increases through the evolution of new monetisation opportunities, which substantially offsets any loss in SMS revenue”.

In some markets, “notably India and Indonesia”, operators have launched data packs for Nimbuzz to attract customers to their networks, “increasing the data ARPUs using popularity of Nimbuzz”.  This model is also being used by rivals such as WhatsApp, for example, which has inked a deal with 3 in Hong Kong.

But the potential goes beyond this, Saxena continued: “MNOs are now providing billing services for Nimbuzz’s currency (Nimbucks), which further helps these groups monetise from an area that has long gone untouched – until now. This is a new revenue stream for MNOs.”

The company also works with device maker partners – the app is preinstalled on products from around 50 manufacturers worldwide. “We’re seeing great performance from on pre-installed devices, and user growth and adoption continues to increase as more people select Nimbuzz as their desired communications’ platform,” he continued.

Building the business

According to Saxena, Nimbuzz has the potential to expand beyond its communications remit. “While the core features like messaging, voice and data see massive use, users don’t stop there as they branch off into many apps like gifting, virtual identity and even gaming,” he said.

International growth is also on the cards, both in new and existing markets. “We expect ongoing demand from nations with rapid mobile adoption, and we’re continually advancing our product to service new growth regions,” he said, noting that the company will also be increasing its activities in the US market starting next year.

The company currently generates its revenue in various ways, including through its NimbuzzOut calls, advertising, branded chat buddies and its Nimbucks virtual currency. It said that more streams will go live next year with operators, as the VoIP market evolves further.

Saxena also said that the company intends to strengthen its relationships with all parties in the ecosystem (including operators, handset makers, device platform players and app developers) and work to develop “the most robust network for users worldwide”.