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WhatsApp rocks and will kill SMS

It’s an open secret that SMS is a cash-cow for operators. They can charge obscene amounts for messages (compared to the cost of delivering them), obscene amounts that become crimes against humanity when they rape you for sending SMS when roaming. WhatsApp is one of the best alternatives — and one that may actually have a future when compared to much earlier incarnations like MXit that have millions of users but are still trying to find a way to make money.

First, WhatsApp’s functionality. Quick to cover, there’s not an awful lot to it. Once you’ve installed the app (for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Nokia) you register. This requires that you give a cellphone number, triggering a reply message from WhatsApp that validates your phone and login, and ties the app to your handset.

This was a smart move — or a dismal architecture fail, but I’m going to give the devs a pass because it works in many unexpected ways. By only being able to use Whatsapp on one device, you radically reduce flexibility for a few users (like gadget reviewers) that swap back and forth between devices often, but most people won’t care. What it definitely does do, however, is radically simplify the architecture that WhatsApp needs to support on the back end. Simpler, more robust, hopefully less expensive to develop and maintain, which means a cheap, reliable service for you and me. Win.

When you sign in for the first time, it scans your address book and tells you who else you know is using WhatsApp — because obviously it can match phone numbers to WhatsApp users. This is brilliant, because a major “barrier to use” of any messaging app is who you can contact with it. Immediately I was able to swap from texting some people to WhatsApping them. Making people change their habits is hard — tying the user to the phone number makes address book population effortless. Win.

Once running, the app now runs in the background as a daemon to notify you of new messages. It’s fairly efficient, I’ve never seen any significant impact on phone performance (tested it on BlackBerry Bold, Nokia E7, HTC Desire Z, even the little Samsung Gio). It’s not a marvel of tinyness, taking up 9.5MB of memory (compared to Skype at 5.7, K-9 Mail at 5.6, Twitter at 4.6 –but a a lot better than MXit’s 15MB!)

The app doesn’t do an awful lot — but then again, why always with the feature-stuffing?

It’s a fairly simple interface. You have a WhatsApp contact list (populated from your address book), you click on a name, type a message, hit send. Replies are threaded left and right in a visually intuitive way, and that’s pretty much the totality of the functionality.

Sending media files is trivial, and it has a nice feature where it shows a thumbnail of the item in the message stream for when you want to go back to it. It also stores any transferred media files in a separate WhatsApp folder which some find aggravating, I find convenient.

It does emoticons, and does it ever have a wide selection of some of the weirdest icons ever. Smiling face, frowning face, crying face, six different colour hearts, sixteen faces of varying ethnicities and occupations (yes please, I do need an icon for an Inuit fire-fighter for my next conversation). It has icons for countless meteoric conditions, animals, including frog, fox and furry monkey (two of), and bafflingly, a camel and warthog. In case you need them, there’s also a Shintoist couple and pack of MacDonald’s fries. WTF?

WhatsApp even pretends to be a real time messaging app by telling you what time the contact was last online, or whether they’re typing or not. This is a feature that should be murdered like a cluster of garden snails, as it’s horrifically hit or miss (was the person actually online? Or did the background service just wake up for no good reason?), and can result in irritation, frustration, confusion and phoning someone who’s fast asleep after a late night because WhatsApp told you they were awake.

In terms of portability, you can back up your messages to an SD card, and import them onto a new phone. Quick and easy.

Now we return to the million dollar question. Will WhatsApp survive and prosper where so many messaging platforms have struggled in a twilight world of user base growth and cash-flow burn?

WhatsApp does not report any useful numbers — not revenue, not userbase (although it’s in the 10 to 50-million downloads range in Android Market, with 270 000 reviews). It has a revenue model based on Ruby on Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson’s recommendation: Put a price on it.

The app is free (for everyone but iPhone users, sorry suckers, that’s US$0.99), and free to use for the first year, then it’s US$1.99 per year (so get ’em hooked then charge a negligible annuity income).

Contrast this with MXit, which probably has similar user numbers in the 20-million range. MXit is free to download and use, but the company has spent the last few years fruitlessly casting about for ways to monetise this. MXit Moola, wallets, markets — all very nice, but the user base wants to chat. For free (or as close as possible to free). Connecting the cheapskate chat users with spending cash is just not working.

So while WhatsApp is small, elegant, simple and task-specific, MXit is big, complicated and clumsy.

The advantage MXit currently has is its investment in client versions for a gazillion different handset models, from the most basic feature phone to the smartphonest. WhatsApp is currently stuck in the top end of the market — although not a bad place to be as we see the entry of cheap Android phones for the masses.

And so we come to the last big question: will apps like WhatsApp kill SMS?

The simple reality now is that SMS is desirable only because it pretty much works anywhere in the world, with any operator, on any handset. Apart from that, it’s shit.

Primitive, and no presence or meaningful delivery confirmation capability. With WhatsApp you can see your message was transmitted (one tick on screen) and received (double tick). You can (sort of) see that the other person is online to you. You also don’t get spammed (yet) as you only get messages from your closed user group.

Like SMS, WhatsApp is linked to a phone number, which simplifies addressing in terms of recipient uniqueness, but unlike SMS is IP-based so you don’t have to worry if your operator has an SMS interconnect agreement with a recipient roaming in some godforsaken country. The app does multimedia, so obviating that awful, pathetic dogshow called MMS. It costs fractions of a penny per message.

Mobile operators hate it. Dutch operator KPN foolishly tried to attack it on low-end packages, leading to an outcry and passing of net neutrality laws. No surprise here — operators took US$105.5-billion in SMS revenues last year; almost all of which was pure profit.

But IP-based messaging is the future. A couple of platforms will grow and usurp SMS. Will it be open source, open standards systems like XMPP/Jabber? Not likely. This is a winner-take all space, and open source just generally fails to gain popular appeal (no, Android is not open source).

Personally, I’m rooting for WhatsApp. Two bucks a year vs half a buck a message? Appsolutely.

Who it’s for:
Everyone! (with a smartphone)

What we like:
Small, elegant, simple, highly functional (please don’t cock it up, WhatsApp, some of us still remember the small, elegant ICQ of the early days)

What we don’t like:
The ‘presence’ status info is very, very suspect
Occasionally you get delivery backlogs (growing pains?)

Author Bio

Roger Hislop
Roger is a tech fan that is hot, hot, hot for well designed, clever, beautiful things that make our lives a little bit more amazing. He spends a lot of time geeking out in a house littered with bits of cable and electronics. He owns his own oscilloscope ferchrissakes.... More
  • Garth

    Removed WhatsApp from my BB 8520 because it chews serious battery. Had to charge 2x per day, even after force closing the app. Still seems to run in the background.

  • Anonymous

    And we’ll never have these problems again when we have HTML 5 on mobile allowing awesome-looking mobi sites that look and feel like native apps but without cross-device inconsistency and…

    Oh well, we can always hope.

  • Roger Weiss

    I know get irritated at responding to a friends SMS because they don’t want to install WhatsApp on their smartphone.  I now have to spend money responding to them via SMS.  If I didn’t have to SMS I would save between R50 and R100 per month on my bill.

  • Vuyelwa

    WhatsApp kills my battery.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DDXJDAVCXHJZKG5PW2KMLVBDO4 DarrelK

     Try sending as many smses as whatsApp messages and see how fast your battery will die then… Its not the App its the user.

  • Alan

    Application 2 Person SMS will continue for years to come and will grow as it is ubiquitous.

    The main challenge to IM on smart phones is fragmentation – everyone has their favorite.

  • http://twitter.com/leonjacobs Leon Jacobs

    BBM is more reliable on the Blackberry platform and having played with a beta version of iOS5 I suspect iMessenger will launch the final assault on Whatsapp. iMessenger is elegant, simple and powerful. Once RIM and Apple figure out a way to make PINs talk to iOS and vice versa its tickets for W/A.

  • Pingback: WhatsApp rocks and will kill SMS | Gearburn | Android And Gadget News()

  • SisterIT

    It is available for iPhone users as well.. And yes the cost is very very cheap! But then again iPhone rocks and any app with it!

  • http://twitter.com/adielslarmie Adiel Slarmie

    Group Chat is also a great feature not mentioned here.
    They should remove the ability to update status though. Bit odd seeing the status of arb people who’s number I added as a contact that ONE TIME!

  • http://twitter.com/adielslarmie Adiel Slarmie

    bliksems!!! I forgot to add the words “ubiquitous” and “fragmentation” to my previous post.
    Please everyone, know that I use these words on a regular basis

  • Mde

    Well written, I think mxit was sold for a few hundred million rands. Agree its cheap and works very well a joy to use I like the online and typing and it works well (nearly all the time)

  • http://twitter.com/VoiceOnTelecom The Voice on Telecom

    Of course, the real winners in the big game around SMS and internet-based services will not be consumers or even little startups like WhatsApp but big software and content companies that want to push data-heavy
    internet services, notably Facebook, Google and Skype’s owner, Microsoft.http://thevoiceontelecom.blogspot.com/2011/10/whatsapp-net-neutrality-and.html

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  • Michael Barlow

    Hang on…how come Android’s not open source?

  • jezebel

    True, some service providers are rude enough to charge for sms (but smart consumers choose those few that don’t), and true, 
    if you don’t mind paying a nominal fee for an app, Whatsapp is  for everyone with a smartphone….. that’s always got its data package enabled. 

    I generally disable mine on my SII because of the exorbitant rates that SA service providers charge for data, and only enable it when I’m out and about and have no other way to go online. This makes Whatsapp unsuitable to my text message habits, which are constant. I  don’t forsee SA becoming any more reasonable with its data rates any time soon, either. Do you? 

  • jezebel

    True, some service providers are rude enough to charge for sms (but smart consumers choose those few that don’t), and true, 
    if you don’t mind paying a nominal fee for an app, Whatsapp is  for everyone with a smartphone….. that’s always got its data package enabled. 

    I generally disable mine on my SII because of the exorbitant rates that SA service providers charge for data, and only enable it when I’m out and about and have no other way to go online. This makes Whatsapp unsuitable to my text message habits, which are constant. I  don’t forsee SA becoming any more reasonable with its data rates any time soon, either. Do you? 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MUUW3TGPPQJNCT5MJVMR4EKW7U The Hermit

    I like Whatsapp but I am pissed that they are charging $2 per year. Of course $2 a year is not going to make me go broke but it’s the principle. Why pay for something that others essentially provide for free? I am trying to encourage everyone to use Google Talk now. Does the same thing but it’s free.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/andre.pinto.5222 André Andre Pinto