Feb 28, 2013 · 3 minutes

While tech watchers and investors in the US foam at the mouth over Snapchat and its various intrigues, a bigger story about mobile messengers continues to unfold in Asia. LINE, KakaoTalk, Nimbuzz, WeChat – you can pretty much take your pick. These are the new Facebooks of Japan, South Korea, India, and China, and they’re growing fast, not only in terms of users – together they claim more than half a billion users – but also in revenue opportunities, represented by a combination of income streams from brand campaigns, deals, ecommerce, payments, premium features, and gaming. If you were to describe a Holy Grail of lucrative mobile products, it would look a lot like these messengers.

It’s no wonder, then, that there’s a frantic race on for global expansion, led most aggressively by WeChat – known in China as Weixin – which is backed by the deep-pocketed Tencent, which has a market capitalization of about $80 billion. (Incidentally, that market cap puts Tencent comfortably ahead of Facebook, which has a market cap of about $64 billion right now.) That global expansion is starting in Asia, but North America is certainly on the cards too.

Tencent has its eye on Southeast Asia especially for WeChat. It has just announced a partnership with Indonesian company MNC Media to push WeChat in the country, which has a population of 250 million people, many of which rely solely on mobile phones for communication. Tencent is also promoting WeChat in Indonesia through a TV ad campaign that features celebrities, according to The Next Web.

KakaoTalk, LINE, and WeChat are all facing off against each in Southeast Asia, perhaps based on the realization that there will likely be one platform that ultimately dominates the fast-developing region and perhaps the world. As Facebook showed by defeating local social networks, such as Korea’s CyWorld, to become a truly global force, anyone playing in the social space has to think outside its own borders in order to survive. In the mobile era, especially, the Internet doesn’t care where you live, it just wants to connect you.

And yes, that means these messengers will try to take on the US, too. As we reported last July, KakaoTalk already had 3 million users in the US, which at the time was about the same number of users Path had. Tencent fancies its chances here as well. On Monday, it said in a company email that it will open a US office for WeChat led by vice-president Zhang Xiaolong. That is a serious investment. Zhang was the founder of Foxmail, an email client that Tencent acquired in 2005, and the team responsible for building WeChat, which has grown to more than 300 million users in the space of two years. Zhang’s responsibilities in the US will be to build a user base for WeChat and a customer relations department.

One of the temptations with messaging products is to dismiss them as mere mobile chat apps. For sure, the chat aspect of these products is vital – it’s what draws people into them in the first place, and it's what keeps them there. All the Asian players have made voice and video messages a key part of their offerings, and WeChat recently released an update that enables live audio chat for groups. Indeed, the apps first became popular by being a free alternative to SMS.

But the chat aspect of these apps is only the front door into a much deeper experience that is highly monetizable. Each one of these apps has an extensive social graph that reaches beyond existing social networks such as Facebook and Sina Weibo and into the mobile devices’ address books. The likes of WeChat and KakaoTalk have been able to build payments and gaming platforms on top of that graph, effectively positioning themselves as threats not just to mobile carriers but also to the social networking giants themselves – namely Sina Weibo and Facebook. As we’ve pointed out numerous times, in China WeChat is eroding the popularity of the once-dominant Weibo, which has Facebook-like ubiquity in the country.

Ultimately, that is why Facebook is starting to look more like WeChat every day. For now in the US, Google and Twitter are Facebook’s biggest rivals. But there should be no doubt that Mark Zuckerberg and company are also keeping a wary eye on these Trojan Horses from the East.