Snapchat offers video and instant messaging

Conversations will be deleted when users leave the instant messaging screen, Snapchat said

Watch out, WhatsApp (and Facebook): Photo messaging app Snapchat is now offering video calls and instant messaging.

The new features, collectively called Chat, let users swipe the name of one of their friends in their Snapchat contact list to start a text conversation. Instant messages can be saved individually by tapping on them while users can also take a screenshot of conversations to save them, Snapchat said in a blog post on Thursday. Messages that are not saved will be cleared after users read them.

Snapchat has also added video chat to its features. The app will show when a friend is online, allowing users to start live video chats with the press of a button, much like Apple does with FaceTime, the company Snapchat showed in a video.

Until now, Snapchat mainly let users share pictures, which disappear after they're viewed. "But until today, we felt that Snapchat was missing an important part of conversation: presence. There's nothing like knowing you have the full attention of your friend while you're chatting," Snapchat said.

The new service will be available for Android and iOS.

Snapchat did not report how many people use its service but last October said that "about 350 million Snaps" are sent every day.

Snapchat is not the first photo messaging app to introduce video and messaging. Instagram, for instance, introduced Instagram Direct about four months ago, allowing its users to share photos and videos privately or with a select group of people. Twitter's video-sharing app Vine also introduceda private messaging system recently.

There are also a wide variety of mobile messaging apps available, chief among them WhatsApp, which has about 450 million users and is in the process of being acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. WhatsApp also lets its users share recorded videos and photos.

The features Snapchat added are commonly offered by its competitors and are probably the most requested by its users, said Paolo Pescatore, a mobile services analyst with CCS Insight.

In order for Snapchat to compete "these are the must-have features in order to retain users, but also to acquire new people," Pescatore said.

Retaining users and attracting new ones is always a problem for messaging apps, particularly ones that have a young demographic like Snapchat, Pescatore said. Young people always jump on the latest and greatest service and it is important for companies like Snapchat to evolve, he said.

"What Snapchat and other providers need to do is to increase the airtime that people spend with their own services," Pescatore said, adding that this can be done by building beyond the core product. By increasing the amount of time people spend with a service, companies also might have an easier time monetizing their products through, for instance, advertising, he said. Monetizing a free service remains a challenge, he added.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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