What’s Up With WhatsApp?

By now we’ve all heard the news that WhatsApp is being bought for a decent chunk of change by Facebook, but what makes this application so unique and desirable? Most people think this is just another IM application, but a closer look can help us see why this app has become the major player.

Most interestingly, users in WhatsApp are required to provide a real phone number that becomes their user account. In order to add someone to WhatsApp, that person must already exist in your phone contacts. This is a key difference since most IM apps out there use an email address as the user id. This has been so important to WhatsApp’s growth, especially in emerging markets where feature phones are still very common. Because WhatsApp bridges seamlessly over both Wi-Fi and SMS, it brings in a new whole group of people who didn’t have access to traditional IM apps.

Additionally, the user interface is dead simple to use, allowing images, videos, sounds, and text to be part of a chat. Chat groups are very easy to setup; once the group is set, all recipients receive a message letting them know they are in. Plus it also provides a received message confirmation, which is not available with traditional texting, especially in areas where connectivity is flaky and not exactly real-time. No more wondering if your mom in Mexico really got that text or not.

Lastly, WhatsApp is more affordable than standard text messaging plans. The service is free of cost to the user for the first 12 months then costs just 99 cents a year for unlimited messaging. This is also a key feature since not everyone has unlimited texting plans, and international text messaging can be expensive. Some cell phone companies do charge a data fee, but that is independent of the app, and paying for data is often much less expensive than paying per text message.

WhatsApp’s worldwide presence, as well as its ease of use, will open a “world” of possibilities to Facebook. WhatsApp, with its ability to drill into new user bases, including huge part of the world that only has access to phones for computing, will allow Facebook to tap into uncharted territories. But is that worth $19 billion? We’ll just have to wait and see.