Nov 29, 2012 · 4 minutes

Today, Kik is updating its mobile messaging app so users can share more than just chat messages. Thanks to HTML5 “cards” that the startup has spent the last 18 months building, users can now share YouTube videos, images found through Google Image Search, and sketches without muddying up the user experience. The card-oriented approach is in direct contrast to Kik’s more-successful Asian competitors.

Founder Ted Livingston says simplicity is key to Kik. Users have long been asking for additional features, but he didn’t want to make the app too cluttered or heavy. Now Kik can offer rich media embedded in the cards. When a user opens one up, she’s taken to a new screen where the media will display. She can then share that card with whoever she chooses. The cards are accessible by swiping left or right from the main chat screen.

Kik is launching its updated product only with images, videos, and sketches, but Livingston says the company will build new cards to accommodate user requests as they roll in. The company spent so long building the software in HTML5 from scratch because it didn’t want competitors to be able to clone it easily and use it natively in their apps.

Pretty much everywhere other than the Western world, mobile messaging is an incredibly hot space right now. People are increasingly using their phones rather than their desktop or laptop computers to access the Web, and the smartphone population is exploding particularly in places such as China and Africa where for many people the devices are the first avenue to the Internet.

Both Kakao Talk and LINE have more than 50 million users each in South Korea and Japan, and Tencent’s Weixin (the English-language version of which is called WeChat) has 200 million users in China. Brands are showing interest in reaching mobile users through the apps. One effective way to do so can be found Kakao’s “Plus Friend” offering, in which people can add a brand to their friend list in order to receive discounts and marketing messages. That’s one way to get around the problem with mobile ads, which in a lot of cases still straight-up suck.

Kakao Talk is also an ecommerce platform through which friends can send each other gifts, such as Starbucks coupons, and three months ago it launched a gaming platform that has already driven more than 80 million game downloads. Tencent, meanwhile, has announced that it will soon integrate its PayPal-like payments service with Weixin.

These services, too, are starting to erode the attention time and popularity of social networks that were designed for the desktop era. For example, Weixin is already stealing some thunder from the once indomitable Sina Weibo, which is like a cross between Facebook and Twitter. If an equivalent of Weixin existed in the US and had similar popularity, mobile-challenged Facebook would be in serious trouble. But because there is no dominant US equivalent – Kik is vying with WhatsApp, WeChat, and Voxer for that mantle –  Facebook actually has an opportunity.

The social network already has all the elements that make Weixin so popular – a messaging product; a social graph; photo-sharing – but so far it hasn’t shown any inclination to package it all together in a mobile-native experience. Instead, its mobile app is a downsized replica of the desktop experience, laden with data hooks, pokey buttons, and a sidebar menu that looks like a laundry list.

Livingston, who now claims that Kik has 30 million users (that figure seems dubiously high; only one person in my contacts book uses it) considers Weixin, Kakao Talk, and LINE competitors. He foresees a future in which one company, Facebook-like, will dominate the entire space and the attendant social graph. But he doesn’t think the “many features in one app” approach would work in the US. He says American users prefer the stripped-back, minimalistic approach.

That, however, is an assumption, and I’m not convinced it’s true. No company other than the Asian players has tried to conquer the US market with a WeChat-style, feature-rich messenger. Path comes close, but it focuses more on content- and status-sharing than chatting.

Such an attempt to build a catch-all communications app might well fail in the US. It’s true that Web users here prefer minimalist, simple design. But at the same time, hundreds of millions of users seem happy to use Facebook’s bloated and cumbersome mobile app. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Zuckerberg and co try a different approach?

For now, meanwhile, Kik is trying a side-door approach. The app is beautiful, the solution is elegant, and the experience is still super fast. But when it comes to owning the mobile messaging space, none of those things are enough. And as ugly old Weixin proves, they might not even matter.