Author(s): Raghu Gopal
This week, WhatsApp, the popular messaging and voice service owned by Facebook, announced that it will offer free video calling. After months in the beta stage, the feature will be rolled out to WhatsApp's 1 billion users worldwide in the coming days.
Unlike Apple's FaceTime, and similar to Skype, WhatsApp offers cross-platform support, allowing users to connect between Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices. WhatsApp claims that video calls are fully encrypted to prevent unauthorized access.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in February 2014 and the messaging company has been operating independently ever since, although Facebook has recently started to collect data from WhatsApp users, signalling the start of deeper integration.
The new feature is another example of the growing popularity of video in mobile devices. WhatsApp's move into video messaging is unsurprising given the number of rivals offering video calls. Apple, Google, Skype, Snapchat and even Facebook Messenger already offer some sort of video messaging functionality. Although WhatsApp has entered the space late, it has a reputation for doing things right and users are dedicated to the service.
For wireless operators, the popularity of over-the-top communications apps are a mixed blessing, driving data consumption but competing with operator services. The use of voice-over-IP apps causes a distraction from voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) services, which 4G operators are currently pushing to their subscribers. The video evolution of VoLTE, or ViLTE for video-over-LTE, is likely to struggle. Given reported user numbers, we estimate that there are significantly more over-the-top video calling users than VoLTE subscribers around the world.
WhatsApp is providing more momentum to a shift in user behaviour, diluting operators' connection to their subscribers. The messaging company is wildly popular worldwide and it's enabling users to circumvent long-distance and roaming charges given the wide availability of Wi-Fi. This will be a popular upgrade for the messaging company but the implications for wireless operators will be mixed.