Personal Communication Trends: WhatsApp Builds An SMS Alternative With Mass Appeal

Facebook Is Killing Text Messaging, Report Says

That article from the Bits Blog at the New York Times caught my eye yesterday. It wasn’t much more than a plug for a recent Strand Consult report linking increased use of mobile Facebook chat to operators’ declining SMS revenues, but it jogged my memory about a few posts I’d planned to do following my trip to Morocco in March for the Tuareg Rallye. While I was tweeting and blogging the event, my non-techie friends (most of them Swiss) were instant messaging and sharing their photos and videos with their non-techie friends. Were they using Facebook? No. (I’m not even sure most of them have accounts on Facebook.) They were using a multi-platform mobile messaging app called WhatsApp. I’d never heard of it, but they all had it, and they told me that all their friends did too.

What is WhatsApp?

The FAQ says,

WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messenger that replaces SMS and works through the existing internet data plan of your device. WhatsApp is available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone, Nokia Symbian60 & S40 phones. Because WhatsApp Messenger uses the same internet data plan that you use for email and web browsing, there is no cost to message and stay in touch with your friends.

WhatsApp identifies users by their mobile phone number, and uses the contacts in their address book to make connections. Users can send a message to anyone in their address book provided that both of them have downloaded the app. It’s more than just a cheaper substitute for SMS too; it also supports group chat, photos and videos.

I thought it was significant that although I spend much more time online than most of my non-techie friends, they had all started using this app, and I had never heard of it. I believe this is a good indication that WhatsApp provides a service with mass appeal. As Jeremy Wagstaff on lose wire blog said,

I always know when a technology is disruptive because I usually hear about it first from my non-techie friends.

The Google Playstore currently shows between 10-50 million installs, and today I noticed it’s still at the top of the Paid App charts in the Swiss iTunes store.

According to Xyologic, the app has almost 4 million downloads on Android and just over 1 million downloads on iPhone, with growth in downloads on both platforms around 10%.

Users send over 2 billion messages per day via WhatsApp. While that may not sound like a lot, I wondered how Skype missed the jump from VoIP to mobile chat. Why did WhatsApp break through so quickly? Maybe it’s because WhatsApp was designed from the start for mobile phone/SMS users. It works using something everyone already has, a phone number and an address book, not by requiring people to sign up, create a user id and profile and then re-create their network. Twitter started in a similar way.

I haven’t tried WhatsApp because I post everything directly to Twitter, YouTube or my blog. If I didn’t spend so much time online, I’m sure WhatsApp would have a lot more appeal. It might soon attract Facebook users too, especially if they start getting creeped out by Facebook’s new privacy policy allowing use of profile data to target advertising on 3rd party websites outside Facebook.

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