WhatsApp has sprouted a new feature: push-to-talk voice messaging. The move, which was first reported by AllThingsD, is useful as it brings the mobile messaging app in line with key rivals such as Facebook Messenger and China’s WeChat. But it’s not the most impressive thing about WhatsApp’s progress.
What’s truly stunning is that WhatsApp now has 300 million monthly users. Just this April, WhatsApp was touting a monthly user base of 200 million, proudly proclaiming that this made it bigger than Twitter. Well, 300 million users means it’s convincingly overtaken rivals such as WeChat (300 million registered users overall but just 195 million monthly active users in the first quarter of this year), Line and Viber (200 million registered users each), KakaoTalk (100 million registered users), and arguably even Skype (280 million monthly users as of January, but that’s not just on mobile).
(Just to complicate matters, by the way, research firm GlobalWebIndex estimated this week that WeChat was used by 27 percent of the world’s smartphone users in July, while WhatsApp was used by 17 percent and Facebook Messenger by 22 percent. The figures above come from the companies’ own statements.)
Here are some other metrics WhatsApp has revealed: its users share 325 million photos a day; they send 11 billion messages a day; and they receive — this is more because of the group chat facility — 20 billion a day. And the company also seems to be the clear market leader in most countries, with the notable exceptions of China, where most of WeChat’s users are, and Japan, where Line is the thing.
So what’s behind all this growth? I’m willing to bet it has something to do with WhatsApp’s aggressive push into emerging markets, particularly those in south-east Asia, where low-income users can pay a small monthly fee to use data-compressed versions of apps including WhatsApp, without needing to pay for a monthly data tariff as such.
It’s this part of the world where the big competition is taking place and – because it eschews the platform approach taken by most of its rivals – WhatsApp stands out here as a relatively simple and streamlined service. The new voice message feature illustrates this simplified approach well: you just push down on the microphone symbol to record a message, then when you lift your finger it sends.
But for western observers there’s another twist to this tale: unlike most of the biggest viral apps, WhatsApp isn’t free. After a year’s use, users need to pay 99 cents a year – pocket change in the age of in-app purchasing, but it’s still unusual to pay for the app itself. Could there be a link between charging a small amount for the app and not weighing it down with ads and other unwelcome screen furniture? I suspect they’re onto something there.