If you send text and photo messages with your smartphone more often than you place calls, then using a non-carrier texting app can make sense and save you money. This week we're going to look at five of the best alternative texting apps and services, based on your nominations.
Photo by Melina Manfrinatti.
All the services discussed here work in the same basic way: you can send messages and images for free to anyone else using the app. Effectively, they act as a phone-based instant messaging service. The upside is that the messages are free (apart from any data costs if you're using mobile data rather than Wi-Fi). The downside is that everyone you want to talk with has to use the same app as well. (Most of these services will scan your address book on installation to identify other people you know who already have accounts.)
If your plan includes unlimited SMS, then these services are potentially less useful. However, they're a great way of saving money if you regularly text people outside of Australia. In many cases, they also offer additional features you won't get with conventional SMS.
WhatsApp is a cross-platform messaging system that supports Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Blackberry devices (plus a few older Symbian models). The service has millions of active users, and allows you to send text, photo and voice/video messages to individuals and groups for free using mobile data or Wi-Fi. When you install it, the app compares all of the phone numbers on your phone against known users and adds your friends to your contact list. Messages to any other WhatsApp user are completely free (as long as you have a current WhatsApp subscription). WhatsApp is free to download and use for the first year; you'll need a $0.99/year subscription after that to continue using it.
Viber is a solid SMS replacement service, but it offers more than just text and picture messages. It Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Blackberry, and also features desktop clients for Windows and Mac so you can send, receive and keep track of your messages on your computer as well as on your mobile device. Viber has millions of users, and allows you to exchange video and audio messages, and even place VoIP calls to other Viber users. When you install it, the app scans your address book for phone numbers that match existing Viber users. Viber is completely free and ad-free.
ChompSMS and Textra are both Android-only, from the same developer (Delicious), but they're very different apps. ChompSMS is a simple SMS replacement service. Unlike most of the apps here, you can send messages to conventional phones, but you pay ChompSMS rather than your carrier for the service. Chomp doesn't seem to be in active development, with Delicious focusing on the newer Textra client, which aims to provide a better SMS management environment but still uses your plan's existing SMS allowance.
Facebook is closing on a billion active users, and Facebook messenger allows you to connect with any other Facebook user for free, bypassing traditional SMS completely. The Facebook Messenger app supports Android, iOS and Blackberry, and essentially gives you a mobile version of Facebook messages on the go. You can use it to communicate with your friends on Facebook who are also using the app, or you can use it to send and receive messages with friends who aren't using Facebook at all. Facebook Messenger also has a Windows desktop client that allows you to keep up with the messages you're sending through Facebook without picking up your phone.
Originally introduced as part of Google+ and with an emphasis on video chat, Hangouts is now being positioned by Google as its main real-time communication system. Hangouts offers a completely data and Wi-Fi driven text replacement, which is like a combination of IM, group texting, location sharing and photo sharing. It's available on your iOS or Android smartphone and on the desktop through any Google service.
Honourable mentions this week to Line, which is exceptionally popular in Japan, where it's based. It's not limited to Japan though -- it has over 200 million users in over 40 countries, and offers free calls, text, picture, video and audio messages. Also worth mentioning is the previously coveredGliph, which allow you to create a "cloak", which protects your identity, and send completely encrypted (and Bitcoin payments) to anyone else.
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Use a different option? Tell us (and tell us why) in the comments.