Orange hits back at Facebook with OTT messaging developments

Orange immediately struck back against news that Facebook is acquiring over-the-top (OTT) messaging firm WhatsApp, by revealing changes to its Libon messaging application that will open the service to more users and operators.

The France-based operator is enabling Libon users to contact anyone in their phonebook with access to an HTML5 browser, regardless of whether they use the service or not. Orange is also making Libon the core consumer app for all Joyn services, and said it is making the application available to other operators seeking to deploy OTT messaging.

Giles Corbett, Orange's Libon head, told FierceWireless:Europe that acquisitions in the messaging application space--like the WhatsApp deal--"show just how important and active this sector is at the moment."

Orange's decision to broaden availability of Libon takes the service out of the walled garden approach used by the majority of OTT messaging services today, Corbett explained. "We're making it possible for you to chat and share content with any of your contacts without having to know what app they are using, or which social network they belong to," he said.

The operator revealed the expansion a day after Facebook agreed to acquire WhatsApp in a deal worth $19 billion (€13.8 billion) in total over the next four years. A company statement revealed WhatsApp has 450 million active users--70 per cent of which use the service daily--and is adding a million new users per day.

Peter Briggs, senior analyst for global consumer services at research and analysis company Current Analysis, told FierceWireless:Europe that Orange and other operators "clearly believe there's a profitable 'Telco-OTT' segment out there," and that Orange "is certainly giving Libon its very best shot: adding rich messaging with non-user contacts; emphasising interworking with other Joyn-based services where they are encountered; and maximising distribution by licensing resale by operators beyond its own footprint."

The only potential downside Briggs can see to operator OTT messaging is the cost of the services. However, he predicted most operators should be able to make a profit from the services, adding that "it's vital carriers test their abilities to offer global services beyond their national networks," whether the services make money or not.

Dutch incumbent KPN is also reportedly developing its own OTT messaging app, with an MMS service for smartphones based on the GSM Association's Rich Communications Service (RCS) programme.

Eden Zoller, principal analyst for consumer telecoms at Ovum, said Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp is timely because social messaging volumes and user numbers are growing rapidly. The research and analysis company predicts 69 trillion OTT messages will be sent in 2014 compared to 27.4 trillion in 2013. In contrast, traditional MMS, SMS, and A2P SMS messages are tipped to peak at 7.7 trillion in 2014 and start gradually declining from 2015 onwards.

Facebook's backing will make an already threatening OTT messaging service more onerous to operators, Lynnette Luna, senior analyst for consumer services ecosystems at Current Analysis, told FierceWireless:Europe. "It becomes more threatening because it has a big company willing to throw money at it regardless of whether it has any revenues coming in," Luna said. "However, WhatsApp has been one of the more amenable OTT players when it comes to partnering with carriers, and if it is still operating autonomously, then I don't see that changing."

Zoller predicted that Facebook will merge WhatsApp's service with its own messenger application in the long run.

For more:
- see Orange's Libon announcement
- see Ovum's comment
- see Facebook's acquisition release

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