Mobile messaging apps are growing ever more popular as they add social networking features and compete to meet the growing demand for free mobile calling and SMS texting services.
Established mobile apps like Facebook Messenger and older Internet calling services such as Skype increasingly are competing with upstart mobile apps, including MessageMe, Viber, Line and TextMe.
It can be hard to know which free messaging service to use because so many are available. To help sift through this crowded category of apps, here's a look at ten of the best mobile messaging apps. Almost all offer some form of free voice calling and free mobile SMS, either over WiFi or the user's smart phone data plan.
Line is a mobile messaging and voice calling app with social networking and gaming features that increasingly has been going global. It is owned by South Korea's Naver Corp. and ranks as the top messaging app in Japan, where Naver's Japanese division NHN Japan Corp. developed it in 2011.
In addition to free voice calls and instant text messaging with pals, the Line messages app offers games you can play with your Line friends and a built-in camera app with filters for sharing photos with them.
The Line mobile app also offers idiosyncratic cartoon characters and stickers that serve as emoticons and are designed to make communicating more fun. The core communication features are all free, but Line offers a freemium model that includes charging fees for premium stickers. Line is more popular overseas but has been making a push in the U.S. in 2013.
Line is available as a desktop app and mobile app for iOS, Android and other platforms. It considers itself more of a social entertainment network and not just a messaging app.
WhatsApp is a mobile text messaging app designed to let cell phone users send text messages without having to pay SMS fees to their carriers. The messages are sent via the Internet and therefor require the user to have a data plan on their phone, which is typical of these messaging apps. Messages can include video, audio and photos, not just text.
WhatsApp is a cross-platform app, meaning it's available for a variety of mobile operating systems and allows messaging across them all-- including the iPhone, Android, Nokia, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. The app launched in 2009 and has proven popular.
Unlike a lot of messaging apps, WhatsApp doesn't offer voice calling, at least not yet. And it's not 100 percent free, either. WhatsApp has been costing 99 cents to download, but then is free to use. However, WhatsApp reportedly has been considering switching to an annual subscription fee, though it likely would remain modest in price.
Viber is a popular free app that piggybacks on WiFi or the data plan a cell phone user has to make voice phone calls and send SMS messages that are not counted as part of their carrier's paid calling plan or text messaging plan. The company's tag line is "Connect. Freely."
So its main appeal is the ability to use WiFi or a paid mobile data plan on a smart phone to circumvent the limits of a paid voice-calling plan and/or paid SMStext messaging plan. The voice calls use VOIP, or voice over the Internet.
The Viber app is known for its ease of use, since it reads your phone's settings and contacts and immediately enables the app. There's no need for a password or special set-up process, which most apps require. Messages can include photos as well as text, and the voice calls can move off of the carrier's 3G or 4G data network and onto a wifi network when one is available. Group messaging also is available for up to 15 friends, allowing for more private conversations than, say, on Twitter.