The number of people using OTT messaging apps is set to hit 4.2 billion in 2021, according to new forecasts, as the companies who make them look set to add new AI-based capabilities.

A report from Juniper Research said the customer base of the likes of WhatsApp and Snapchat would grow 82 percent from the 2.3 billion users who were signed in 2016, at a CAGR of 12  percent.

The research firm also said Facebook, Snap and others would look to reposition their messaging platforms as customer relationship management (CRM) tools, through the launch of automated chatbots.

It predicted that the number of chatbots on mobile devices would exceed two billion globally by 2021.

Service providers must view the introduction of chatbots as an opportunity to expand their in-app offerings, beyond a mere messaging service, Juniper said.

Sam Barker, Research Analyst at Juniper Research, commented: "Successful chatbots will increase audience engagement, maintain customer satisfaction and generate repeat business.”

Recent research from Gartner has shown that 72 percent of users use OTT messaging apps at least once per day.

However, there may be regulatory hurdles to using OTT apps for marketing and CRM.

In January, the European Commission (EC) proposed new measures that will extend existing telecoms regulation to all electronic communication providers.

The proposals cover the privacy of internet users, requiring content and metadata in electronic communications to be anonymised or deleted if users have not given their consent, unless it is being used for billing purposes.

In addition, unsolicited electronic communication would be banned if users have not consented.

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