June 16, 2021

Should You Build Chat From Scratch or Buy Chat APIs?

Arti Agarwal

Should You Build Chat From Scratch or Buy Chat APIs?
build chat or buy chat api

Communication is at the center of app development—communication not just for customer service, but enabling communication among users and for multiple purposes. An in-app chat solves this requirement in any kind of software development.. The bigger question though remains: should you build a chat feature in house or buy a chat API? 

Buying a chat app is as simple as buying a subscription for Drift or Intercom which allow a user and customer service interface. But it is limited to that. On the other hand, buying a chat API that allows cross-customer interaction as well as customer service or sales, has a lot more flexibility, is deployed within the app and is customizable.

When you buy chat APIs, you get the additional features of allowing multiple channels of communication, owning and analyzing the communication data, and ensuring privacy of the communication data. A basic chat app does not have these features. This is desirable if your app is something like a Tinder or an Uber, where multiple users can connect to multiple providers in a secure way.

So the decision-making process for such an app requires weighing the pros and cons of building a chat app on your own vs buying a chat API to integrate.

Building a Chat App From Scratch

building chat app

When building your own chat app, you must remember that the bar has already been set high. Users expect a certain level of speed, security, privacy and a set of features in any chat app, being accustomed to these features in apps like Whatsapp, Slack, Facebook Messenger etc. So, even before you build an app, you must know what you are aiming at.

Apart from these features, you might want to add some additional features for your specific requirements. Your users will value your chat features only if they work well. Else it can easily become a drain-hole in a boat, triggering frustration and negative feedback from users.

What It Takes to Build Your Own Chat

Building a chat app requires resources in terms of capital investment, time, and infrastructure, and the opportunity costs associated with all of these. It is worthwhile to look at each of these in some detail.

Capital Investment

The financial costs involved in building a chat app span across infrastructure costs, hosting costs, maintenance costs, salaries of personnel, and exigencies. Each of these has been broken down into its components in this explainer article. These are the key points to consider when evaluating the costs associated with your chat:

Picking the Right Infrastructure

The infrastructure for the app must be selected so as to be able to store chat history, allow exchange of files securely, allow calls on VoIP, be fast, allow frequent updates to technology, enable privacy and encryption features where necessary, and add extra features like video calling, bots, etc. as per specific requirements. The choice of infrastructure and its associated costs must take all of these into consideration.

Development Budget

Chat is usually an additional, ancillary feature in an app. Development of the chat features must factor in how much of the development budget can be allocated to chat development, which includes but is not limited to costs of servers, network layer, messaging protocols, VoIP, hosting, scaling, client platform, encryption, database management, chat bots, UI/UX design, cloud servers, etc.

Personnel Costs

Number of engineers required and personnel salaries must be considered based on the features discussed above. In most cases you will require an engineer each for 3 platforms (iOS, Android, Web), UI/X development, building APIs, devOps, and websockets. Considering a salary of 100K/yr for a senior engineer in Colorado, this is a budget of 600K/yr for personnel salaries.

Hosting Costs

Hosting costs for a chat will be on the higher side, since a chat is useless if it is not fast, and a feature-rich application requires an equally sophisticated hosting solution.

Opportunity Costs

The opportunity cost associated with allocating personnel and budget to chat development must be given due consideration in a company which is not big enough to allow a full development team for a chat app alone. Would all that talent and expenditure add more value in developing some other features in your software?

Time Investment

Developing a fully functional chat with all required features is a time consuming project. While planning the project, an estimate for the time must consider the following aspects:

  • There are two components of time involved in chat app development--the time required for actual development, and the time required for maintaining, upgrading and troubleshooting the chat app after it is launched. In a company with finite resources, both these time investments will matter.
  • The time required for chat app development is the time required for you to run your software without any chat. Will this lead to undesired outcomes like loss of business or a drop in user sign-up? In any business where communication is key to growth and business, this time lag can quickly convert to a loss in revenue and an undesirable opportunity cost.

Infrastructure

One of the biggest components that needs to be considered as a limiting factor in choosing to build a chat app is the infrastructure. The question is not merely that of the cost of infrastructure, but also the correct choice of infrastructure and the resources required to maintain it on an ongoing basis.

This article gives the low-down on how to build your own chat, and the numerous factors to be factored in. 

The choice of programming language, web servers, database management, cloud hosting, etc. should be able to support the choice of features and requirements. Any mismatch in the two during the development of the chat can lead to an increase in costs as well as the time-to-market. It can also lead to a below-average user experience, which could also translate to loss of revenue in certain cases.

Who Should Build a Chat App?

Building a chat app requires considerable resources, know-how and time, as discussed above. So it follows that not everyone can build their own chat app, even if they are a tech company or startup. It may not be economically viable or otherwise feasible for a company which wants a quick additional chat feature for an application which needs to be released in a short time.

Building a chat app is good for companies:

  • Which have considerable time, resources and the know-how to build a chat app
  • Which can allocate resources and time to maintain and upgrade the chat app and technology
  • Which value owning the chat technology and intend to innovate in that space
  • Which consider chat to be a product for their app, rather than a feature for their app
  • Which can handle the risk associated with the security and privacy of the chat real-time data and archived data.

Buying a Chat API

The most desirable alternative to building a feature-rich chat app is buying a chat API and SDK. Chat API (Application Programming Interface) is a bridge between your application and the server infrastructure that provides chat services. It can be implemented in-application, in-game, livestream, website or other services. The process of buying a chat API is far simpler and shorter than the process of planning the development of the chat app. It includes:

  • Identifying the chat features you require
  • Details of the tech stack you currently use, and the platforms on which chat is required (eg Android, iOS etc)
  • Any advanced integration required (if you need customization)
  • Estimating the number of users and visitors on your app — current and future expectations
  • Identifying the level of privacy, security and encryption you require for the chat data

With these aspects clarified, buying a chat API is a relatively simple process. 

Cost and Time Involved in Buying a Chat API

Although buying a chat API is not considered to be “plug and play”, it is relatively very simple as compared with building your own chat. For a chat API and SDK like CometChat, the deployment of the chat takes only 2-3 days, depending on how quickly you can enable the integration. The integration itself is not a complicated process, and works with no-code companies and websites as well The timeline for this is 5-10 minutes. 

Checkout CometChat’s extensive range of tutorials for detailed instructions on integrating a chat API with your app.

The cost for implementing a chat API depends on the service provider. CometChat allows you to start building your app with all the core key chat features - VOIP call and video calling, chat encryption and GDPR, SOC 2, & HIPAA compliance for free (no credit card required). Paid plans start when your app scales beyond 25 active users per month at USD 149/month. Checkout our pricing plans for more details.

This is less than a fraction of the cost incurred in building a chat app from scratch. With an increase in the number of users, only the rates of the plan change. No other development or change to the set up is required. So it is easily scalable whenever required and can be set up within an hour.

Who Should Buy a Chat API?

Any company or startup that is considering building a chat app must must use ready made Chat APIs or SDKs if they fall into any of the below categories:

  • For a company/startup that is only just getting launched, and does not wish to invest a huge sum of money or time in adding a chat feature to their app or website
  • For a company/startup that does not have a full-fledged tech team, but considers a chat app to be valuable to their business and/or product
  • When a quick solution or a one-time solution is needed for a company or startup—eg, an a live event or product launch
  • Building your own chat app could give you savings over a longer stretch of time, since the initial costs tend to be high. So, if the estimated loss of revenue due to lack of a chat feature (during the period of chat app development) is more than the estimated savings made from building your own chat app, over the next few financial cycles, it would make sense to buy a chat API.

Wrapping Up

Chats are here to stay, and have evolved from basic texts on the phone to the most essential and indispensable aspects of our digital lives. Adding a chat feature to your website or app should be an easy process that makes engagement and communication a breeze for you as well as your users.

CometChat does exactly that with simple integrations and a suite of features, continuously updated with the ever changing trends in technology and chat. Simply sign into the dashboard to start building your chat app for free. Or talk to our experts for more advice.

About the Author

Arti Agarwal is an alum of IIT Roorkee & MIT. She has pursued advanced education in Data Science and Economics. She's a published author and writer and winner of the "Most Influential Content Marketing Professional" Award by the World Marketing Congress in 2017.

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