Facebook tells WhatsApp users to download Chrome – because everything goes mobile anyway

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WhatsApp just released a browser client for notebook and desktop users. But the Facebook-owned company made some strange choices: In order to use the browser version which simply mirrors the WhatsApp apps’ content in real time, one’s smartphone on which WhatsApp is installed needs to be connected to the Internet. Also, WhatsApp users that run the app on an iPhone cannot use the new client. According to WhatsApp the reason are “Apple platform limitations”. But the weirdest thing is that for the moment, WhatsApp Web only is compatible with Google’s Chrome browser. If you access https://web.whatsapp.com with Safari oder Firefox, you are being prompted to download Chrome.

This is a type of behaviour that we, as far as I know, have only seen from one major company before: Google itself. For example, Google’s new mail interface Inbox was initially only available for Chrome.

But WhatsApp belongs to Facebook. Facebook and Google can be considered major competitors. Over the past years, both companies had various smaller and bigger fights. Even though Google’s latest social experiment Google+ – which has an estimated couple of million active users a month – does not cause Facebook any headache, both companies are competing over user’s attention and advertising Dollars. Therefore seeing Facebook actively promoting the competitor’s browser strikes me as pretty exceptional.

Now, there apparently are some technical reasons for why WhatsApp went with Chrome. As the messaging service told GigaOm, Google Chrome’s push notification system “is ideal for the product”. The blogger and developer Andre Garzia points out that WhatsApp makes use of a non-web standard API of Chrome. Since I am not a developer I can only guess about why WhatsApp made its choices. But this guess actually is not hard: Probably Chrome allowed for a comparatively easy, smooth implementation which meant less work for WhatsApp. Going the easy way might not usually be the best business philosophy. But in this case, WhatsApp and its owner Facebook simply think pragmatically:

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The stationary web that is accessed through PCs is rapidly becoming less relevant. Mobile is where the action happens. The majority of Facebook’s revenue is generated on mobile devices. That trend will only accelerate. WhatsApp likely felt some pressure to offer a web version – but not enough to invest heavy engineering resources in this endeavor. So the company opted for an easy “alibi” solution (instead of developing native clients for Windows and Mac OS X). It’s unclear whether iPhones and other browsers than Chrome will be supported one day. That probably depends on the feedback and traction WhatsApp Web receives.

But no matter how much easier the work on WhatsApp Web became for the company by choosing Chrome as the initially only supported browser: Would all this be worth it if it means pushing the competition’s browser?

Not in a scenario in which browsers on desktop machines and notebooks lead to competitive advantages. But since the mobile web is taking over, and since mobile is dominated by native apps, Facebook most likely does not see any harm in getting some more users to download Chrome. Maybe it even wants Chrome to gain in an overall shrinking browser market, because of Google’s willingness to  embrace non-standard, developer friendly APIs.

In any case it really is the boldest way of telling your competition how little of a threat you think it is: by actively pushing your competition’s product. Google better not feels flattered.

3 comments

  1. I am a web developer. Going Chrome first is a no-brainer – it is the number one with a major margin, it has the best debugger built in (though the Firefox extension Firebug is equally good) and complex web apps almost always run the smoothest on Chrome.

    However, there is a standard technology for push notifications (web-sockets). With the right libraries it is dead-simple to use, it works on all modern browsers and has fallback on older ones (you get the fallbacks for free with the right libraries). Nowadays developing cross-browser is a breeze compared to the olden days of IE6. Stuff developed for Chrome usually works on Firefox and Safari with very little tweaking and even modern IEs mostly try to play nicely. Safari is based on the same rendering engine as Chrome. These two browsers are the closest related of the popular ones, though there are small differences.

    For such a well financed company it is extremely weird to not start cross browser. This story sounds a bit of major engineering fuck-up. Some fan-boy developer started off with the wrong technology and they realized that too late. Or their engineers are completely ignorant of modern standarts and somehow managed to deliver an incompatible implementation – frankly I don’t know how to do this but it is very likely possible, though rather improbable.

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