Rakuten Is Betting Its Future on Viber

December 22, 2014         By: Michael Foster

Neither is a household name in the United States, but Rakuten’s acquisition of Viber is one of the most important stories in mobile messaging for 2014.

Japanese eCommerce juggernaut Rakuten may not be as big as Alibaba, but it’s one of the most innovative eCommerce companies in Asia.

Back in 2010, the company said its official language is English, and all communication in the company needs to be in the language of global commerce. Shortly after the announcement, it expanded into Indonesia, Germany, Russia, Canada, Spain, Austria, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Its global presence has made it a major force in global commerce, and its strategic presence in countries with high internet penetration and speeds has given it an edge in certain niches.

The strategy of stitching together totally separate eCommerce markets into one global umbrella is unique to Rakuten. While Amazon and eBay remain largely U.S. and U.K. focused, Alibaba has kept its focus on low cost, low margin, fast growth nations like China and India. Rakuten has aimed for somewhere in the middle.

That brings us to Viber, a messaging app that Rakuten bought earlier this year for $900 million. The messaging app has 600 million users and offers games, mobile payments, VOIP calls, and other features familiar to users of WhatsApp, WeChat, and Line, the big dog on Rakuten’s home turf.

But Viber offers some more features, like public chat, which has already been a hit in India, where sports stars are using it to broadcast with fans.

With this, Viber is becoming many things to many people: a way to broadcast like Twitter, a way to send voice calls like Skype, and a way to play games and send messages like Line. It also fits Rakuten’s gobal strategy with a strong following in several well-connected countries, like Croatia, Australia, and India.

Next year, we will likely hear more about this messaging service as Rakuten adds features to it, and allows the company a more direct connection with millions of messaging and shopping consumers.

Even if you’ve probably never heard of it.