The Uncomfortable Evolution of WhatsApp

WhatsApp rolled out its status sharing update last week, drawing heavy criticism from users around the world.

WhatsApp Messenger is among the most used personal messaging apps in the world. Founded by Brian Acton and Jan Koum in 2009 as a one-year free trial service, WhatsApp mostly removed the need for text messaging, and soon gained popularity because of its simple user interface and faster service. The cheaper and easier availability of mobile internet has aided its cause. Recently, even companies have begun using WhatsApp accounts to share their content.

The acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014 seemed a very bold move. Facebook chairman, CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg promised that WhatsApp and Facebook would operate independently, that the primary aim was to develop new mobile services with more options for people to connect. WhatsApp services were soon offered free of cost, with frequent updates introducing many new features.

Here are some key characteristics that made WhatsApp special, and how those have changed over time:

Simplicity:
One of the main reasons WhatsApp initially stood out was its simplicity – text and multimedia messaging, requiring only an internet connection.

What has changed?
A lot! WhatsApp is not just a messaging app anymore; it can also be used to make video and audio calls. With its most recent SnapChat-like status sharing update, it is now possible to share stories in the form of images and video which remain visible for 24 hours.

Security and Privacy:
WhatsApp only allows messages to be sent to other WhatsApp users whose phone number you have. Since April 2016, messages, voice calls, and media are all automatically secured with end-to-end encryption if both devices have more recent versions of the app.

What has changed: Although WhatsApp now offers extra security measures such as two-step verification and encryption, questions of data security were raised late last year when an opt-out change in the privacy agreement would otherwise link the WhatsApp account with Facebook by default. The introduction of ‘read’ and ‘seen’ features are also not very privacy friendly.

Speed and size:
Earlier versions of WhatsApp were small, and worked well in basic smartphone devices.

What has changed: Features such as increased group member capacity, more emojis, and GIF attachments have increased the size of the app and placed greater demands on both internet connections and older devices.

Originality:
When the app was introduced, WhatsApp was one of a kind. Since then many similar apps have appeared, yet not proven to be as successful.

What has changed?
By borrowing features from apps such as Viber, Facebook, Skype, and most recently Snapchat, WhatsApp has lost its originality. It might have become a ‘one for all’ app, but it is no longer the classic messaging service it was.

Change is inevitable. Any app must keep pace with the competition to survive. In today’s mobile internet world, it may seem that consumers have the upper hand, but technology may be the real driving force.