WhatsApp had a meteoric rise from when it crashed onto the scene in 2009, and it shows no signs of stopping. It’s the third-largest social media application by global users, only beaten by its parent company’s flagship app, Facebook, and YouTube. WhatsApp has over 2 billion active monthly users across the globe, but what is the secret behind its staying power?
As other communications apps have come and gone, WhatsApp has continued to reign supreme as the international app of choice. There are many reasons for its success, but let’s zoom in on three: Its focus on the product, the free-to-use model, and its devotion to personal privacy.
A Tool, Not an Ad Platform
The founders of WhatsApp, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, have been consistent from the beginning that they were building a product, not a way to deliver ads. Other social media or communications apps survive on ad revenue. While not necessarily bad, this does create a less-than-ideal user experience. Advertisements are a quick way to produce revenue, but WhatsApp has always worked without advertising direct to the consumer. Instead, they have monetized through WhatsApp Business and WhatsApp Pay.
This allowed WhatsApp to focus on delivering a quality product. It brings together features you normally need several apps to cover: Messaging, calling, video chats, and group chats. It crosses boundaries, both technological and geographical. It doesn’t matter if the consumer is from a different country, or they have a different operating system, WhatsApp will get the message through.
Almost a quarter of American adults said they used the app in 2021, but the sheer volume of use around the world makes it the go-to app for international communications. Need to contact the guide for your tour of the Pyramids? You’ll probably get them on WhatsApp. How about a video call with a business associate in India? You better download WhatsApp.
Its founding ideal of delivering a good product has cemented it as the global leader in phone-based communication.
Free for the Win
WhatsApp is also popular because it is free. It costs nothing to have a WhatsApp account or to use any of its robust list of features. Most importantly, however, users don’t have to look at ads. This was a deliberate choice on the part of the app’s designers — navigating ads on mobile devices clogs up the screen, interrupts the experience, and frustrates the users.
When using WhatsApp, nobody will ever have to hunt for the barely visible “x” that’s almost impossible to click in the top right corner of the ad box. Instead, users are treated to an unsullied communication experience that works quickly.
WhatsApp filled a gap in instant messaging when it was first introduced. Instead of the per-text fee associated with most major carriers, WhatsApp allowed unlimited texts and calls for an annual fee of $.99. When most people were paying a quarter for every text they received or sent, WhatsApp was a godsend.
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With international calls and texts even more expensive (and they are still exorbitant), WhatsApp really stood out. Meta removed the annual subscription fee in 2016, but by that time, WhatsApp had built a reputation for reliability and solid performance. Users trusted it, and the free experience and ad-free interface combined to build the global leader we see today.
WhatsApp is especially handy for international travelers. It is the most popular messaging app in 100 countries largely due to its free model. Sending international SMS texts can get pricey, and in a world where Android-based phones are more popular than Apple, people cannot always count on iMessage. Calls are even more expensive than texts, but WhatsApp took those concerns away. With international roaming, people could travel abroad and, at least theoretically, only pay for data charges.
It’s Private (Enough)
Even after its acquisition by Meta, WhatsApp maintained its devotion to personal privacy. Users appreciated its end-to-end encryption, and the fact that it doesn’t store messages sent by its users. While many other messaging apps encrypt texts in transit, WhatsApp encrypts them at the point of origin (the user’s phone) and only decrypts at the point of the intended recipient. In fact, WhatsApp is so stringent about privacy protection that it is blocked in authoritarian countries like China.
Of course, it is not all good news. WhatsApp has experienced its fair share of problems: The app is not immune to scammers, and in recent years government agencies like the Department of Defense have cracked down on the use of private social media apps for official communications. With its parent company arguably the biggest trafficker in personal data, the question remains as to how much data is truly secure on WhatsApp. It may be safe to argue that it is no less private than most other social media.
I first encountered WhatsApp in 2017 when my work required some international travel, and WhatsApp was touted as the easiest way to get around exorbitant text and calling charges. I have wanted to delete it ever since because I don’t want too many apps on my phone. But I haven’t. It is too reliable, too easy to use, and too ubiquitous. So I’ll just keep WhatsApp on my home screen. Odds are, you have it on yours, too.