No one does mobile chat apps like Canada

When it comes to creating the world’s most popular mobile chat apps, Canadians are the talk of the web and Waterloo, Ont., is ground zero for instant-chat innovation.

When it comes to creating the world’s most popular mobile chat apps, Canadians are the talk of the web and Waterloo, Ont., is ground zero for instant-chat innovation.

Free instant chat apps are becoming increasingly popular among texters tired of paying for sending and receiving SMS messages.

The gold standard is still Research In Motion’s (TSX:RIM) BlackBerry Messenger, called BBM by its acronym-wielding users which now number more than 28 million. BlackBerry users have become addicted to the lightning-quick speed with which messages are transmitted, and the handy notification system that lets users know when a message has been received and read.

But BBM only works on BlackBerrys and users of other smartphone platforms wanted in on the action.

PingChat!, created by Waterloo-based Enflick, Inc., in September 2009, mimicked the BBM utility on the iPhone and quickly became a hit, earning a coveted spot on the front page of the app store.

It’s now on the Android platform and has been downloaded more than 5.5 million times across all platforms, said Gary Fung, the program’s original creator.

It used to cost 99 cents to download the app but it’s now free and the company is making more money than before through advertising, Fung said.

“We quickly realized that in order for this app to be really useful it’d be better to have a larger pool of people in the network, so we changed it over to being free and monetized it through advertisements,” he said.

“Advertisement is just as viable, if not better, than the paid model route.” Competition is fierce and the company is constantly eyeing the development of other chat apps.

“There’s been over 100 applications that are similar that we monitor and we’re aware of — and there’s possibly more. But so far we’re basically ahead of the game. Our application seems to be the most feature-rich because we’ve been doing it for a longer time.”

One major competitor is WhatsApp Messenger, a U.S.-based app. It still costs 99 cents.

But the developers behind PingChat! are keeping even closer tabs on a new competitor closer to home, one of their neighbours at Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre, home to more than two dozen start-up companies.

Kik Messenger has become one of the latest tech-blog darlings du jour, with its recent phenomenal launch. When you’re getting endorsed on American TV by a star, using chartered aircraft to make deliveries and have your success described as “unprecedented,” you know you’ve hit the big time.

Kik launched publicly Oct. 21 and had a few days of modest growth. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, modest turned exponential. Within a little over two weeks, the app amassed more than a million users and is now somewhere north of 2.3 million.

The influential blog TechCrunch called Kik’s rapid ascent “a once in a lifetime start-up success story.”

“It’s really unprecedented,” said proud founder Ted Livingston of the app’s early success. “To go from zero to well past 1.5 million users in under three weeks is literally unprecedented. It has never happened, like, in the history of the world as we know it.

“Twitter took two years to get to a million, Foursquare took a year. We took 16 days.”

As the app grew more popular, the Kik team struggled to meet demand and keep the service running.

At first, it was easy enough to order an additional web server, wait three days for it to be installed, and watch the load on the app ease down.

Then multiple servers were being ordered at once. Then the team found they couldn’t wait three days for more servers, or the app would collapse under the weight of its popularity.

So they took the next logical step: they acquired new servers themselves, got a private plane chartered and flew the computers to their data centre in Iowa.

“You can just imagine these guys with boxes under their arms running across the tarmac,” Livingston said with a laugh.

“It’s just been absolutely nuts. We didn’t think this would happen. We knew we had a good product but it just exploded.”

But even with Kik currently jockeying for top spot on Apple’s download chart for free social networking apps, Livingston is cognizant that a competitor can easily steal the spotlight at any time.

So he’s pledged to keep Kik free — “we will never charge for the app; never, ever, ever,” he insists — and is now trying to stay under the media radar to focus on developing the app.

“We want to keep our heads down a bit . . . we’re almost doing our best right now to be a bit quiet but still moving fast.”

Not that it’s something he can totally control. The app was recently profiled by Whoopi Goldberg on “The View,” which resulted in another slew of new users.

Kik also has another problem on its hands. It was recently pulled from the Blackberry App World for undisclosed reasons. Some have speculated RIM may be a little afraid of the competition.

As for trying to supplant the reigning chat champ, BBM, Livingston, a former RIM co-op student, has no illusions about aiming for that coup.

“Nothing will ever beat BBM, just because it’s baked into the operating system, it’s been optimized for years and years and years, it’s perfectly secure and all these great things,” he said.

“But I think (competition) will be good for RIM because it puts a lot more emphasis on texting and the keyboard becomes very important. And nobody makes better keyboards than RIM.”

Livingston acknowledges the rivalry with PingChat! is somewhat awkward since they work in such close quarters — “it’s sort of unspoken, everyone knows but no one talks about it” — but he says the competition is testament to the talent in Waterloo.

“This community got to see the coming wave of smartphones and what would be possible way before the rest of the world,” he said.

“I think, really, Waterloo is on the cutting edge of mobile.”