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[liberationtech] Why Skype (real-time) is losing out to WeChat (async)

Nathan of Guardian nathan at
Sun Dec 23 22:10:28 PST 2012

I know in the LibTech and broader global activist/NGO community, there
is still quite a bit of focus on Skype. However, during my recent time
in India with the Tibetan community there, I have seen Skype, on mobiles
at least, almost thoroughly replaced by WeChat, a WhatsApp/Kakao clone
made by TenCent, the same Chinese company who created QQ. To my personal
horror, we have gone from a somewhat secure Skype with a questionable
backdoor policy, to a non-https, China-hosted service who is a known
collaborator with the Chinese government.

The only I thing I felt productive to do (other than scream and pull out
my hair) was to think about why this is happening from a user
perspective. Why is a text messaging/push-to-talk model winning out over
an instant messaging/VoIP model, in places like Africa and Asia,
regardless of known increased risk and decreased privacy and safety?

Other than the typical "users are dumb" answer, I think there are some
deeper useful factors to consider. Overall, I think we are seeing that
when smartphones are plentiful, but bandwidth is still a challenge, we
need to think about communications in a more asynchronous model than
real-time. I don't think this community should get too caught up in
building "Skype replacements". I think more we should think about what
features otherwise great, secure apps like Cryptocat, RedPhone,
TextSecure, Gibberbot, etc are missing to make it possible for them to
replace the functionality and experience users are expecting today.

Why Skype/real-time is losing

1) Noticeable impact on mobile battery life if left logged in all the
time (holding open sockets to multiple servers? less efficient use of push?)

2) Real-time, full duplex communications requires constant, decent
bandwidth; degradation is very noticeable, especially with video

3) App is very large (a good amount of native code), and a bit laggy
during login and contacts lookup

4) Old and tired (aka not shiny) perception of brand; too much push of
"pay" services

5) Requires "new" username and password (aka not based on existing phone
number), and lookup/adding of new contacts

6) US/EU based super-nodes may increase latency issues; vs China/Asia
based servers

Why WeChat (and WhatsApp, Kakao, etc) async are winning

1) Push-to-talk voice negates nearly all bandwidth, throughput and
latency issues of mobile.

2) Push-to-talk is better than instant messaging for low literacy,
mixed-written language communities; The "bootstrap" process for Skype is
very text heavy still

3) Apps feel more lightweight both from size, and from network stack
(mostly just using HTTPS with some push mechanism)

5) Shiny, new hotness, with fun themes, personalization, and focus on "free"

6) Picture, video, file sharing made very easy - aka a first order
operation, not a secondary feature; chats are a seamless mix of media

7) Persistent, group chat/messaging works very well (since its just
async/store and forward, its very easy to send many-to-many)

8) Identity often based on existing phone number, so signup is easy, and
messaging to existing contacts is seamless

9) More viral - you can message people not on the service, and they will
be spammed to sign up for the service

Anyone want to call b.s. on this theory? Is my thinking headed in the
right direction? Should we try to turn Gibberbot into a more-secure
WhatsApp/WeChat clone?

All the best from the Himalayas,

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