Back in 2009, BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) was the most trending tool for instant messaging. But, it was restricted to BlackBerry phones and relied on a PIN system to communicate with others. SMS (Short Messaging Service) was still actively used by most, and till date, a character limit drastically reduces the amount of data we can send in one go.
For multimedia files, MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) or email were the only options. Sure, web messengers like Yahoo and Facebook Chat were incredibly popular, but you had to rely on a PC or laptop to use them. Instant messaging wasn't new, but "mobile" instant messaging was. And don't forget, every SMS or MMS incurred a charge.
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Then came WhatsApp, an instant messaging application that realized the potential of Apple's App Store and leveraged it to the fullest. Within a short span of time, the service was a hit. The ability to immediately send messages over the internet meant no more additional SMS charges, and your data pack had you covered. In fact, WhatsApp was a paid service for a brief period due to the massive growth.
The app's growth has been unmatchable, and it's no surprise Facebook acquired it for an unimaginable US$ 19 billion. Let that sink in, an app-based instant messenger was sold for $19 BILLION.How Did It Revolutionize Instant Messaging?
1. It focused on simplicity: BBM had a PIN system and worked only with BlackBerry phones. Hence, if you wanted to ping someone, you'd first need their PIN (which just wasn't easy to remember). Also, being restricted to one mobile platform meant you'd still have to rely on other services. Lastly, it needed a separate BIS (BlackBerry Internet Service) connection from your telecom operator.
All these hurdles were instantly removed by WhatsApp since it relied on your mobile number as a unique ID. Hence, anyone with your contact details could also reach out on WhatsApp. The app also operated over a normal internet connection and required no additional offerings.
2. Focus on messaging: A lot of competing apps over the last decade have started out as messengers, but lost focus when they tried to do multiple things at once. WhatsApp always stuck to their core product - messaging. Hence, the UI remained simple and straightforward. A whole generation that skipped usage of computers were able to adapt and learn the simple app.
3. Reliability: WhatsApp has suffered multiple outages, but none of them has been over an extended duration of time. The users know the app may get slow during peak hours of the new year, but it'll still work in a few minutes. This trust was a huge offering back in the day and the service has built a reputation for itself.
The app also has a remarkably well-built network in the back, and its lightweight protocol means messages get transferred with the slowest of data speeds.
4. Send anything hassle free: Want to share your birthday celebration pictures? Done. Too tired to type and want to send a voice note quickly? Done. Want to send a PDF ticket instantly? Done. There's almost nothing that WhatsApp can't transfer. And, its compression helps in reducing storage requirements as well. Emails often don't sync easily with a low network or slow data speeds, but WhatsApp will come through.
5. Don't type, just speak: In 2015, WhatsApp rolled out voice calling as an in-built feature, followed by video calls. This meant you could not only send texts but also talk in real-time without incurring additional charges from the telecom operator.
6. Going cross-platform: Last, but the most important factor. WhatsApp started out with iOS, but was quick to adapt to upcoming Android OS. Then, it gave a shot to Symbian, BlackBerry OS, Windows Phone, and more. This ensured that a maximum number of users were covered. By the time BBM opened up, WhatsApp had already snatched the throne.
Even today, Apple's own iMessage is used regularly in selective markets only. And a closed-door policy never works for anyone. Let's hope upcoming RCS standards are able to bridge this gap and offer an option by-default to all users.
Critics would argue that WhatsApp has always been comparatively slow in rolling out new features, and they are right. But when you have a user base of a billion people, sudden additions are a risky move. And WhatsApp has always played safe. Like I said, the service has a sharp focus on "messaging", and doesn't wander off.
BBM had encryption years before WhatsApp did, Telegram and Skype offered video calls much earlier than WhatsApp did, and even stickers took an extremely long time to come. But, consider WhatsApp to be a government policy. With so many different clients involved, the company needs to think about everyone, right from a budget phone user to a flagship user. That too across multiple platforms.
While WhatsApp has made communication quick and simple, it has been mired in controversy recently. The ease of use also meant the uncontrolled spread of fake news and unverified messages. These "forwards" have already costed many their lives due to mob justice, and the service has done little to curb this epidemic.
On one side, its encryption ensures that everyone's messages stay private. But it also means monitoring or moderation is impossible. And the platform has been under immense pressure from government bodies lately. The service has tried to bring in a few countermeasures like limiting forwards, but it's like using a bucket of water to douse a forest fire.