For an idea of why messaging applications are attracting valuations in the tens of billions of dollars, look no further than WeChat, a 600 million-user messaging application that's part of Tencent Holdings Ltd.

WeChat, a smartphone instant-messenger, digital wallet and car-booking service rolled up into one, is probably worth $83.6 billion, according to HSBC. As people spend more and more time sending short messages to each other—instead of, say, browsing websites or shopping online—such services have become some of the hottest technology businesses around.

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