WhatsApp has a deep rooted history in India. The messaging app started out in India at the turn of the mobile internet revolution in India and was among the first apps to truly offer a convenient alternative to SMS. Today, with over a billion users globally, and its largest audience being Indian, the service is as good as a staple of our digital existence.
The app has evolved so much since its inception 8 years ago that it bears little resemblance to the original.
Although WhatsApp is considered to have stolen the Stories feature from Snapchat, when it first showed up on the app store, WhatsApp was essentially an application for showing your status to all your friends. WhatsApp as we know it in its present form came about initially because of a basic feature addition to the iOS operating system.
Soon after push notifications went live on the platform, WhatsApp debuted an updated version on the App Store, in November 2009. Now that status has been expanded to images and moving pictures, but initially, it was just a text string.
There were a few pre-set status messages, and the idea was to inform your friends and family of what you were doing at the present time – sleeping, attending a meeting, watching a movie, busy, or available. The status function was meant to be updated regularly, as and when you switched activities. Although the functionality remains in the application, WhatsApp was never really used for what it was originally intended for. Apple approved the version with the chat functionality, WhatsApp 2.0 in September 2009. Three months later, in December 2009, WhatsApp 2.3 landed and it included the ability to send videos and images.
As soon as the developers added the functionality of instant messages, the popularity of WhatsApp started blowing up. Originally, the WhatsApp icon matched perfectly with the skeuomorphic designs of the calling and messages application on iOS. When it was first introduced to India, in mid 2010, WhatsApp was a paid service on iOS. The cost of verifying the account was more than the cost of providing the service, which was the reason for the one time one dollar fee.
WhatsApp became a cross platform application and was made available to users on iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, Blackberry and even on Nokia feature phones. On iOS, users only had to pay a one time fee for using the service forever.
On other platforms, use of the service was free for a year, after which, users had to subscribe to WhatsApp for $1 a year. The payment model did not stop WhatsApp from growing in popularity in India. WhatsApp had plans to introduce the subscription model to iOS devices as well. The service has never been ad supported.
Other instant messaging applications were also seeing an increase in adoption, including WeChat, Line and Viber. There was stiff competition in Asia, one that still continues with superior features, and a thriving chatbot ecosystem. One of the main features lacking in WhatsApp, that was available with competitors, was that of sending voice messages. Nimbuzz, a cross platform messaging application from the s40 and s60 days that interfaced with a number of desktop chat clients, continued to be popular on smartphones as well.
In February 2011, WhatsApp introduced the group chat feature. Initially, only five other users were supported in the group chat. The iPhone, Blackberry and Windows Mobile versions of the IM client got the feature, but not the s60 version, at launch. The ability to control the notifications from group chat was introduced at the same time.
WhatsApp and other instant messaging clients offered a cheaper alternative to SMS services. In price sensitive markets in emerging economies, the instant messaging clients found quick adoption. Over the course of 2012, the number of messages sent over instant messaging services, exceeded the volume of communication through SMS. 17.6 billion messages were sent through SMS, whereas 19 billion messages were sent through IM services.
According to data revealed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the volume of SMS over the July to September period in 2012 fell by 5.6 percent compared to the same period in the year 2011. This was still the early days of smartphones and mobile internet in India, both of which were poised for an explosion. The research firm Ovum projected a loss of $3.1 billion for Indian telecom operators by 2016 because of IM clients replacing the functionality offered by SMS.
Nokia entered into a partnership with WhatsApp for the launch of the Asha 210. As part of the agreement, WhatsApp would offer its services for free to users of the device. The Asha 210, on its part, shipped with a dedicated hardware button for WhatsApp. Previous phones had dedicated buttons for Facebook, but the Asha 210 was the first phone to sport a dedicated button for WhatsApp. Depending on the market, the same phone shipped with a Facebook button instead of a WhatsApp button.
Around this time, there were reports of Google’s interest in buying out WhatsApp for $1 Billion. However, WhatsApp indicated that they were not in talks with the tech giant over the sale of the instant messaging service.
By July 2013, WhatsApp had crossed Twitter in the number of monthly active users, which had reached 250 million. This was the first time that WhatsApp had revealed the base user figure of the service. Facebook messenger and Skype were the only other communication applications with nearly as many users as WhatsApp.
In August 2013, WhatsApp started rolling out a feature that supported short voice messages known as push-to-talk. There were 300 million global users of the application at that time.
Tata DoCoMo was one of the first service provider in India to enter an agreement with WhatsApp for special data rates to its consumers for using the service. Users had to shell out Rs 1 a day to enjoy unlimited usage of the instant messaging service.
At that time, there were 30 million users of WhatsApp in India. A survey we conducted among our readers indicated that 60 percent of the respondents used WhatsApp at least once a week, with Facebook Messenger coming in second at 30 percent. Reliance also had a Rs 16 data plan, where WhatsApp usage would become free after payment of a monthly fee of Rs 16.
As late as November 2013, WhatsApp was denying that it was in talks for the sale of the company. The only potential buyers who could afford to buy WhatsApp were large tech giants heavily active in the social networking and communications space. Facebook and Google were considered the prime candidates.
December 2013 was the month WhatsApp reported that it had touched 400 million monthly users worldwide. WhatsApp CEO Jan Kuom wrote in a blog post that “WhatsApp has just 50 employees, and most of us are engineers. We’ve arrived at this point without spending a dollar on targeted ads or big marketing campaigns. We’re here because of all the people who share their WhatsApp stories with co-workers, friends, and loved ones – stories we love to hear.” WhatsApp would go on to add another 30 million users in under a month.
The numbers continued to surge, with WhatsApp posting figures of 430 million monthly users by January 2014. At that time, WhatsApp representatives said that they would not be introducing “gimmicks” to the IM client, including stickers and disappearing image messages. The ephemeral messages was a feature of Snapchat, an application that was surging in popularity at that time. WhatsApp would later go on to introduce its own interpretation of both features.
In February 2014, Facebook announced that it had reached a definitive agreement to takeover WhatsApp. WhatsApp was adding 1 million users every day at this point. The total value of the deal was a staggering $19 billion. $4 billion was to be paid in cash while $12 billion was to be paid in Facebook shares. An additional $3 billion was to be given to WhatsApp founders and employees in restricted stock over the course of four years.
The deal had wide ranging repercussions. Immediately after the announcement, Blackberry shares saw a surge. WhatsApp founder and CEO Jan Koum joined the Facebook board. After his stint at Yahoo, Koum had tried to bag a job at Facebook, but was rejected. Sequoia Capital was the biggest winner in the deal, which found a 50 times return on investment (ROI) it made in WhatsApp. The venture capital firm had previously invested in Instagram, before that too was purchased by Facebook.
The deal was a win-win situation for both companies, but Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan had to sacrifice chocolate covered strawberries. The WhatsApp owners crashed Zuckerberg’s Valentine’s day dinner to seal the deal.
Towards the end of February, soon after the deal was announced, Jan Koum told The Economic Times that India was a priority market for WhatsApp. “India is important… we want all smartphone users (in India) to be on WhatsApp. Then if that number is a billion, then it’s a billion. Currently, (it’s) over 40 million. So we still have some way to go before we hit a billion,” he said. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cleared the deal.
By April 2014, WhatsApp had reached half a billion users. 48 million of those users were from India alone. The usage base in India represented 10 percent of the total worldwide user base. One of the major fears after the acquisition was that Facebook would introduce advertisements to the service, something that has, fortunately, not yet happened.
Trai began to investigate how instant messaging clients were eating into the revenues of telecom service providers. Telecom operators began to demand for a level playing field with Over The Top (OTT) service providers such as WhatsApp. The contention of the service providers was that while there were binding regulations in place for the telecom operators, the same rules did not apply to applications that provided the same services. OTT communication services were also seen as a burden on the infrastructure of the telecom service providers.
In October 2014, Facebook closed the deal with WhatsApp, with a final price tag of $22 billion. The increase in the value of the deal from $19 billion was because of the surge in the value of Facebook stock in the preceding months.
WhatsApp began to be used for governance in India, with the Delhi Traffic Police launching a helpline on WhatsApp for reporting traffic violations. Special Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Muktesh Chander said, “Delhi Traffic Police is happy to connect with Delhiites on WhatsApp. If you want to complain about any traffic violation, unauthorised parking, overcharging/refusal/misbehaviour by auto/taxi, faulty traffic signals, or any other issue related to traffic problem, you may send photograph or short video clip with details such as your name, place, date, time etc., on mobile number 8750871493 through WhatsApp.”
The Delhi Police would later go on to introduce the facility for women’s safety offered by the dedicated Himmat app, on WhatsApp as well.
By November 2014, WhatsApp had over 600 million monthly active users globally, out of which 70 million were from India alone. Indians were the largest market for the instant messaging service.
November 2014 was the year WhatsApp introduced its most ridiculed feature. Two blue ticks appeared next to messages to confirm that the recipient has read the message. In group chats, the messages would only appear when everyone in the group had read the message. The technical capability of the update was apparently seeded in the application stores before the launch, as the feature was activated through an over the air update and did not require users to download a newer version of the app.
Soon after the two blue ticks feature was introduced, a man from Saudi Arabia divorced his wife because she was reading the messages he sent her, but not replying to them. WhatsApp later introduced a method to disable the two blue ticks feature, first in Android and then on iOS.
Perhaps the more significant update towards the end of 2014, was the introduction of end to end encryption. The TextSecure protocol by Open Whisper Systems was used to provide the encryption. The rollout is believed to be the largest ever deployment of end to end encryption for communication purposes. The encryption was available for person to person text conversations only.
In January 2015, Facebook revealed that WhatsApp had reached 700 million monthly active users worldwide. Over thirty billion messages were shared on WhatsApp on any given day. A web client was introduced for WhatsApp, allowing desktop access to the instant messaging service. However, the feature was not available for iOS users.
The voice calling feature was introduced as a beta testing feature in India in February 2015, only available through an invite system. During the beta testing phase, the voice calling feature was only available to Android users, and to invite another person, a user simply had to initiate a call. The feature was rolled out to select Android users for a few hours. Viber, Hike, Skype and Line already offered voice calling at that time, but the wide user base of WhatsApp gave it an edge.
In mid March, 2015, the voice calling feature was released to all Android phones, but the invite system was still in place. Users had to call other users for them to receive the feature. A month later, in April 2015, the video calling feature was rolled out for all Android users, without an invite system.
The experience was not the same as that of regular voice calls, and included lag, echo and call drops. Towards the end of April, iOS and Blackberry 10 users also received an update with voice calling functionality. Investigations into the cost of making voice calls on WhatsApp revealed that consumers could actually end up paying more in data rates for voice calls, than what they paid with traditional calls.
In May 2015, the first reports started cropping up of Facebook allowing businesses to interact with their customers through WhatsApp. Similar functions were also being tested on Facebook messenger. There were no details on the financial arrangements involved, but it was believed that markers would pay a certain fee to Facebook to allow them to communicate with their consumers.
According to a report by Ericsson, nearly 47 percent of the time that Indians spent on smartphones was dedicated to communications applications such as WhatsApp, Hike and Skype. About 40 to 50 percent of the total data consumed were through these applications, while the data hungry activity of video streaming contributed to only 20 percent of the total data consumption.
iOS users gained the ability to access WhatsApp through the web in August 2016. This was nearly six months after the feature rolled out to Android users. In July, Android users gained the ability to send messages through WhatsApp, using the “Ok Google” voice activated interface.
By September 2015, WhatsApp had over 900 million monthly active users. 100 million users were added over the course of just five months. However, the rate at which new users were coming in had slowed down from the previous year, when almost one million new users were adopting the platform every single day. At that time, no numbers specific to India were released, but WhatsApp was the most popular instant messaging client in India.
WhatsApp introduced the ability to backup conversations, photos and videos to Google Drive in October 2015. Users who migrated to a new device could restore the state of WhatsApp on their old devices, by just restoring the backup from Google Drive in a few taps. Online backup was a heavily requested feature at that time.
WhatsApp started 2016 on a high note by scrapping the annual subscription fee. Anyone was now free to use the application forever, and for free. At that time, Facebook had indicated that there would be a component added to WhatsApp that would allow businesses to use the instant messaging client to interact with its customers, and that Facebook would charge a fee for allowing the businesses to do so.
In February 2016, WhatsApp hit a major milestone. There were 1 billion users of WhatsApp, worldwide. 42 billion messages were being exchanged daily in 53 languages. The number of daily photo shares was 1.6 billion, with 250 million daily video shares. Mark Zuckerberg himself reiterated the plans of introducing WhatsApp for businesses.
WhatsApp started introducing a number of new features oriented at making the IM client more attractive in the face of competition. WhatsApp bumped up the group size for conversations from 100 to 256. Users could share documents through WhatsApp as long as both users had an updated version of the client.
iOS users could use the pinch to zoom gesture to zoom in to videos. Content from third party data storage services such as Microsoft Onedrive, Google Drive and Dropbox could also be shared with other users. WhatsApp also introduced formatting options, allowing users to send messages with parts highlighted in bold or italics.
WhatsApp announced plans to pull the service for dying platforms in March 2016 by the end of the year. The application would no longer be supported or updated for Blackberry, Windows Phone 7.1, and the older Nokia operating systems. The blow fell particularly heavy in India, where the shipments of smartphones had not yet overtaken feature phone shipments, even in 2016.
In April 2016, WhatsApp extended the end to end encryption to the entire application. Photos, videos, and group conversations now could only be read by the intended recipients. WhatsApp had over one billion users at the time of the introduction of the new and improved version of end to end encryption. WhatsApp could not snoop on the messages, even if governments forced it to
The rollout was met with complaints from security establishments around the world. The FBI said that the end to end encryption feature should not provide a safe haven for terrorists and child pornography rings. IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in a response to a question raised at the Rajya Sabha that the encryption introduced difficulties to law enforcement agencies. Experts warned that the feature was a boon for terror groups in India.
In May 2016, WhatsApp introduced native desktop clients for Windows and macOS. Desktops could only access WhatsApp through a web interface before that. Those who had signed up for access to the experimental beta version of WhatsApp, where new features were tested before a wider rollout, saw a new option. Video calls where supported on WhatsApp. The subsequent beta version however, would remove the video calling option.
WhatsApp had become the most used messaging application in 109 countries around the world. Around the world, users were making 1,100 WhatsApp calls every second, which was 100 million WhatsApp calls every day. A report indicated that WhatsApp had been installed on 94 percent of the smartphones in India. A report by an app analytics firm, SensorTower, showed that nearly 62 percent of all applications downloaded on smartphones around the world, were owned by Facebook.
The blitz of new feature introductions continued in June and July 2016. WhatsApp allowed users to quote messages before responding to them, and added an in-app language toggle. Users could be invited to groups, users could doodle on pictures, but WhatsApp was continuing to work on a wide rollout of video calling. iOS got larger emoticons and the ability to zoom in on videos while natively recording from the app. The audio calling feature was improved with a voicemail functionality.
In November 2016, after a year of working on the feature, and six months after introducing it in the Beta version, WhatsApp finally started rolling out the video calling feature for everyone in a phased manner. The reason why the introduction took so long was due to the massive userbase, which also included the varying devices and operating systems that WhatsApp had to work with. The video quality was bad even on Wi-Fi connections, and Allo or Skype offered superior alternatives. However, WhatsApp has been continuously improving the feature even after the roll out, and had a number of small, thoughtful features, such as the ability to change video orientation.
In September 2016, WhatsApp allowed users to mention others with an “@” preceding their names in group conversations. GIF support was also added at the same time. Developers were working on two factor authentication, and chatbots. The video calling feature was still a work in progress.
iOS users gained the ability to queue up messages in offline mode, early this year. The sharing limit for photos and videos was bumped up to 30 from 10, considering the shifts in usage patterns. In February, WhatsApp rolled out two factor authentication for everyone, improving the security of the application. One of the biggest feature introductions, was that of status messages similar to the temporary stories on Snapchat.
In February this year, WhatsApp reached the 200 million active monthly users in India mark, with 1.2 billion users worldwide. The announcement coincided with the eighth anniversary of the service. It was revealed around this time that the WhatsApp for businesses pilot test would begin with India. The company had first indicated such plans soon after the 2014 acquisition by Facebook.
The WhatsApp case on data sharing with Facebook kick-started a much needed discussion in India on a dedicated set of regulations for data protection. India does not have any dedicated laws for data protection and privacy, and experts have long seen the need of a pro-active cyber-legal regime. Introduction of such laws could have a wide reaching impact in India, including on how the Government is able to implement the Aadhaar initiative.
WhatsApp has essentially replaced SMS between users in India. When Wi-Fi connectivity is available, it allows users to save on voice calls as well. Staying in touch with friends and relatives in foreign countries is now much cheaper. For a good portion of its existence, WhatsApp was available on ancient phones, as well as feature phones, which made communication democratic and cheap. Indians use WhatsApp to make 50 million video calls a day.
There are fancier instant messaging applications around, some with more compelling features. Allo, for example, integrates Google’s AI assistant and allows people to play fun games, plan outings together and look up information as a group, even in local languages. Telegram is by far the favorite instant messaging application of the team here at tech2 and includes a number of fun chatbots, a thriving games ecosystem, a breathtaking stickers catalogue and a steady supply of fresh themes. Kik is used by the gaming community as it is linked to usernames and offers some degree of anonymity. For those who want to communicate in a secure way, Signal is the instant messaging client of choice, as even the text messages can be set to disappear after they have been read.
However, no matter which other instant messaging applications are used, WhatsApp is always present and as important as the SMS messages and calling application. An instant messaging application cannot be chosen on the merits of its features alone, an important part of the functionality is who else has installed the same application. In that sense, WhatsApp has seemed to move beyond its critical mass, continuously drawing in an increasing number of users.
And there you have it, a brief history of one of the largest, most ubiquitous messaging platforms around.
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