WhatsApp is the world’s most popular smartphone messaging app, letting more than 800 million people send and receive texts on the cheap. But it’s evolving into something more.
On Tuesday, the company, which is owned by Facebook, released a new version of the app that allows people with iPhones to not only text people, but actually talk to them. This built on a similar move the company made at the end of March, when it quietly released an Android update that did the same thing. And in the week following the addition of voice calling on Android, WhatsApp-related traffic increased about 5 percent on carrier networks, according to a study by Allot Communications—an Israeli company that helps manage wireless network traffic worldwide.
That figure will likely get a lot bigger as WhatsApp shifts from being the world’s favorite messaging app to become a more wide-ranging—and bandwidth-intensive—communication tool.
More and more operators are adopting the strategy of 'let's partner with them' rather than 'let's fight them.' Yaniv Sulkes, Allot Communications
Others have offered internet voice calls on smartphones, most notably Skype and Viber. But WhatsApp is different. So many people already use the app, and the company is intent on keeping it free (or nearly free). Though it has little traction here in the US, WhatsApp is enormously popular in parts of Europe and the developing world—areas where there’s a hunger for cheap communication. The result is an app that could bring inexpensive Internet calls to an audience of unprecedented size.
The rapidly evolving WhatsApp is but one face of the dramatic technological changes sweeping across the developing world. So many companies are working to bring affordable smartphones to the market, from China’s Xiaomi to the Silicon Valley’s Cyanogen, as many others, from China’s WeChat to Viber, push cheap communication services onto these devices.
These technologies face the usual obstacles—and WhatsApp is no exception. Though the app is expected to reach a billion users by year’s end, its push into voice calls could alienate many wireless carriers. If you have free internet calls, after all, you don’t need to pay for cellular calls. Some carriers may fight the tool as a result, says Allot vice president Yaniv Sulkes.
But the same could be said of messaging on WhatsApp. It too cuts into the carriers’ way of doing things. And yet, WhatsApp has thrived. It has so much traction in large part because it has cultivated partnerships with carriers, striking deals that bundle its app with lost-cost wireless services. According another Allot survey, about 37 percent of the carriers now have deals with WhatsApp or similar inexpensive Internet-based services—a sharp rise over the past few years. “More and more operators are adopting the strategy of ‘let’s partner with them’ rather than ‘let’s fight them,'” Sulkes says.
In the meantime, Facebook is pushing for somewhat similar arrangements, through its Internet.org initiative, that bundle limited Internet access with access to specific apps. Mark Zuckerberg and company have encountered some opposition to these deals. But the combined might of Facebook and WhatsApp will be hard for carriers to resist.
As WhatsApp spreads, Sulkes believes, it will keep pushing into new services. After rolling out voice calling, he says, it may venture into video calling. The app already lets you send files, including videos, and other messaging apps, such as SnapChat, already have ventured into video calls.
None of these tools—video calls, voice calls, file sharing—are new technologies. But not everyone has them. WhatsApp has the leverage to change that. The app has grabbed hold of the developing world in rapid fashion, and now it can serve as a platform for bringing all sorts of modern communications to the far reaches of the globe. Yes, there’s another major obstacle to overcome: so much of the developing world doesn’t have the network infrastructure to accommodate these kinds of modern services. But Facebook is set to change that, too.