Facebook-owned WhatsApp is working to become more than a messaging app for the 800 million people who use it worldwide. The app is rolling out voice calling, a feature that could make it an indispensable communication tool for the massive audience it’s already attracted.
The Verge recently reported that soon after WhatsApp quietly started letting Android users make voice calls through its app, it began to roll out the feature to iOS users. An update to WhatsApp’s iOS app enables you to call anyone with WhatsApp for free. While the update is already available, the feature will roll out to users over the course of “the next few weeks.” The App Store version notes explain that users can “Call your friends and family using WhatsApp for free, even if they’re in another country. WhatsApp calls use your phone’s Internet connection rather than your cellular plan’s voice minutes.”
Wired’s Cade Metz reports that this is a big step for WhatsApp, which will eventually become “the way the world makes voice calls.” He points to a study by Allot Communications, which revealed that carriers saw WhatsApp traffic increase by 5% in the week after the app introduced voice calling on Android. Metz thinks that that figure will grow significantly as WhatsApp shifts from being “the world’s favorite messaging app” to become a more versatile (and bandwidth-intensive) communication tool.
Companies like Skype and Viber have offered Internet-based voice calls on smartphones before, but in Metz’s assessment, WhatsApp is different. For starters, hundreds of millions people worldwide already use it, which means that the app can offer cheap Internet calls to an audience of “unprecedented size.” While the app hasn’t gained much traction in the United States, it’s incredibly popular in parts of Europe and the developing world because it offers an inexpensive way to communicate — something for which there’s just as much demand as there is for affordable smartphones.
While WhatsApp is expected to reach the billion-user milestone by the end of 2015, Metz notes that its introduction of voice calls could alienate wireless carriers, who are likely to see fewer users paying for cellular calls if free Internet calling is available.
In Allot’s report, Associate Vice President Yaniv Sulkes predicts that some carriers could fight WhatsApp over the feature. However, WhatsApp’s core messaging function also undercuts carriers, and that hasn’t prevented the company from thriving. WhatsApp has forged deals with many wireless carriers to bundle its app with low-cost mobile services, and by Allot’s count, 37% of carriers now have such deals with WhatsApp or similar services.
WhatsApp may continue to expand its offerings as it grows. The app already enables users to share files (including videos), and other messaging apps like Snapchat let users make video calls. WhatsApp may follow suit. Sulkes writes that “WhatsApp might become an even bigger problem for operators in the near future once Facebook will add video calling to it. As we have seen with Snapchat when it introduced its HD video chat, the bandwidth usage of such an app soars. For operators, this could make WhatsApp one of the top 10 applications ranked by bandwidth usage.”
Metz notes that voice calls, video calls, and file-sharing aren’t new technologies, but not everyone has access to them. WhatsApp could change that as it takes hold in emerging markets, where a variety of tech companies are looking to build the network infrastructure that can accommodate modern services.
Quartz’s Alice Truong recently noted that it might seem redundant for Facebook to own two messaging apps, each with a massive user base and with no plans to consolidate them. But Facebook is taking two divergent strategies with the messaging apps that it owns. In an earnings call with investors, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about his distinct visions for WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, explaining that people use these apps in very different ways.
WhatsApp, according to Zuckerberg, remains a “utilitarian” tool, designed to replace text messaging. Messenger provides a richer experience “focused on expression and the whole set of things that fit into the tools around the Messenger platform.” The company recently opened Messenger as a platform for third-party developers to build apps on. As Facebook Messenger becomes a platform, WhatsApp is keeping its product more focused, with both apps taking a different approach to becoming an indispensable tool for its massive audience.