On WhatsApp’s 8th birthday, a server-side switch updated WhatsApp Statuses from its current text-base to one that allows users to share videos, pictures and GIFs. This update is an undisguised and blatant rip-off of Instagram stories, which is also a shamless clone of Snapchat stories.
I’ve seen many people react negatively to this update on Facebook and Twitter. Some have even threatened to abandon WhatsApp because of the change. Personally, I do not think this carbon-copy is a terrible idea at all. In this fast paced global community where we are striving to make the everything better, there’s no time to reinvent the wheel when a model has already proven successful and that’s exactly what the Facebook-owned chat app has done with Statuses.
Let’s go back in time to where it began: 8 years ago, when Brian and Jan created WhatsApp, they did so with one thing in mind: to enable people know what their friends and loved ones are up to, at all times.
It was literally just for users to put up status updates to prevent inconvenient phone calls and text messages and other interruptions during the day, so that if you hit the gym, you change your status on WhatsApp to to ‘At the gym’. Later that day, if you go see a movie, you change your status to ‘At the movies’. If you have a dentist appointment and will be unable to answer phone calls, you change your status to ‘Busy’, and so on.
This was a brilliant idea at the time because the Instant Messaging sphere was still nascent. Also, the wireless mobile telecommunications infrastructure at the time was more optimized for transmission of texts [I say this because of the meager transmission speeds at the time] as opposed to large multimedia files. [Read about the various generations of wireless mobile telecommunications here].
As time went on, WhatsApp transformed from a status sharing platform to a full blown IM. It conveniently replaced SMS with added perks of transmitting media files and documents. But the interesting thing is that, while other sections of the app kept getting optimized and overhauled, the Status feature stayed a dinosaur. The main purpose of WhatsApp statuses got lost as the years flew by. I have friends who haven’t changed their statuses in 4 years! (Hey Jona, what’s up?)
Happening simultaneously was the rise of Snapchat, an app offered by Snap Inc that allows people to essentially share what they are up to at all times — WhatsApp’s original value proposition — not just with text nor predefined options, but with pictures and videos.
With its incredible acceleration from 100,000 daily active users in early 2012 to 161 million in 2016, and a valuation of $70 million 2013 to $25 billion in 2016, Mark Zuckerberg immediately knew Snapchat’s model was the next big thing. The world had moved from sharing text messages to sharing pictures and videos and Snapchat was positioned just right to cash in. He offered to buy Snapchat for $3 billion but was turned down. Determined not to become irrelevant and with control over Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, Mark is essentially adopting this Snapchat proposition and imbibing it into all these 3 apps.
I’ve argued in the past that, what makes one IM more preferable in the eyes of users over another is merely based on the number of friends and family on that platform. Google Allo has some extremely nifty features but as it stands now, the app is failing because of poor adoption rates. Also, why would anyone want to install another IM app when they have fully functioning and fully connected ones anyway?
Currently, businesses have WhatsApp numbers [to attend to customers] and Snapchat accounts [to display pictures and videos about products and services offered]. With the new development on WhatsApp, businesses can attend to customers and display products and services on just one app! Think of the ease and convenience this comes with. Once a customer saves your phone number, they get to see your story which will hopefully have adverts. Zuckerberg is leveraging on the gargantuan number of active users on WhatsApp to hurt Snapchat.
I do not think this will be a fatal blow to Snapchat though. The app has a unique appeal to its users and I doubt they would want to abandon the app and share in-the-moment pictures of themselves on WhatsApp instead. Remember what was said about Vine, the short-video hosting service, when Instagram rolled out Instagram videos?
Well, maybe simplicity has been instrumental to WhatsApp’s and many would have wished it had stayed the same. But that is how companies get extinct. It makes no business sense to stick to an 8 year old business model in the name of originality and simplicity. WhatsApp has 1.2 billion users. Maybe this change will cause 100,000 to abandon the app, but sooner than later, they’ll flood back, because the value and convenience WhatsApp brings is more than a Status tab that can be completely ignored.
Even though I personally have no plans of uploading a status on WhatsApp [I’ve never uploaded an Instagram story; I visit Snapchat once in 3 months; Prior to the update, I used to put up one status on WhatsApp a year], I think it’s going to revolutionize how we share statuses. We will soon ease into sharing near real-time statuses that expire after 24 hours, just like the founders of WhatsApp imagined. Yeah, go ahead and complain all you want now, but you cannot resist for long. The force is strong with this one.
In the meantime, WhatsApp could consider the following features for later:
When someone wants to add me to a group, please ask for my permission first. Maybe I’m not the man I used to be 2 weeks ago and do not want to talk about how long Manchester United has stayed at the 6th position on the league table.
Conference calls and Group video chats
WhatsApp calls [voice and video] are exciting, but currently, only one contact can be called at a time. what if my whole team can join the call?
Mobile number privacy in groups
You get added to a group and all of a sudden, some creeps in the group start messaging you. How about you hide my number from people I may be in a group with but are not in my Contacts list?
WhatsApp Web should actually be a standalone app in that, its functionality should not depend on your phone being on and connected to the internet. Just like Hangouts, I want to be able to use WhatsApp on my computer when my phone is off or not connected to the internet.
GIF display pictures
Facebook has introduced profile videos — yes, you can actually upload a short video clip as your ‘profile picture’. Since WhatsApp is under the same ownership, display pictures should be refreshed to allow for users to upload endlessly looping gif image formats.
What if we could recall texts we’ve sent to our contacts? This feature has been spotted in the wild. I hope it materializes soon.