A message to WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

Jan Koum, the other co-founder and former CEO of WhatsApp, is leaving Facebook. His former colleague Brian Acton did the same a few months ago.

Judging from the media reports about Koum’s parting with Facebook, it seems that a long-standing disagreement of Koum and Acton with Facebook’s core values in regards to the collection of user data and ad monetization is one (or the) reason why both are moving on. Acton even went so far as to embrace the tiny #deletefacebook movement (which has little chances of success). Continue Reading

Why not being on WhatsApp not being a big deal is a big deal

Here is a confession: I am not on WhatsApp. I have been using the service a while ago, when I tested to distribute blog posts through WhatsApp. Other than that I just never felt the pressure to use it: I use various other messaging services (Facebook Messenger, Threema, iMessage, Slack, Twitter Direct Messages, Swarm, occasionally email, rarely Snapchat but possibly more often in the future) and usually I am able to reach everyone that I want to reach conveniently in one way or another.

While not being a WhatsApp user might not sound like a big deal for Americans, as a European, this is not something you hear every day. WhatsApp nowadays counts more than 1 billion people as active users, and Europe had been one of the app’s first regions of rapid growth. In Germany, Europe’s most populous country, the number of WhatsApp users is said to be north of 35 million. You have to search really hard to find someone who does not have WhatsApp on their smartphone.
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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:

Mobile

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.

How everybody was wrong about the future of Social Networking

Social Networking

Lots of things have changed over the last years in the digital world. To me, one of the most surprising developments has been the quite significant turn of events in the social networking sector:

Today, with some exceptions, the public stream- and profile-based one-to-many-communication as a means of communication between friends looks like a rather outdated concept. Instead, mobile messengers that are based on the concept of private communication between 2 or a group of selected people are becoming the major social networks. According to a fresh forecast (via), in 2015 the world’s 4 biggest smartphone messengers Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Line and WeChat will probably end up reaching more users than the 4 biggest “traditional” social networks Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

When Facebook launched the newsfeed in 2006 and consequently took over the world in the following years, few expected a situation like the one today. Back then, the industry consensus was that private conversations would move into the public sphere, enabled and pushed by Facebook and Twitter. More than once Facebook made controversial changes to its privacy settings that were aimed at stopping users from publishing status updates with contact-only visibility. Also, for a long time, Facebook’s private messaging feature was pretty underdeveloped. Twitter’s is still today (the company promised to improve that soon).

But then, something happened. A couple of years after the pioneering debut of the iPhone, smartphones became gadgets for the masses. At first, Facebook was slow to adapt to the changing usage patterns and technical environment. Meanwhile, companies such as WhatsApp, Kik, Naver (makers of Line) and Tencent (makers of WeChat) saw potential to reinvent the venerable SMS by making it more interactive, less limited, and – of course – free. Shortly after, Snapchat followed with a slightly modified, but equally privacy-aware approach. All these services grew rapidly, and with the exception of Snapchat pretty much unnoticed by the Californian Internet industry. While traditional texting remained popular in the U.S. due to a different fee structure and the popularity of iMessage (which is an OTT messenger but feels more like classical texting), WhatsApp took over many parts of the world, while Line (and to some extent KakaoTalk) captured most Asian markets. Meanwhile, WeChat gathered hundreds of millions of Chinese users.

Facebook’s $21.8 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, announced in February 2014, ended the industry’s and media’s ignorance of the messaging phenomenon. 4 years after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared the age of privacy over, his stance had completely changed. While watching the rise of messaging apps he could not else but realize that the people’s desire to communicate intimately and not connected to an online-identity was stronger than his power to force them into public communication (motivated by the assumed advertising potential). Consequently, Zuckerberg decided to heavily promote Facebook Messenger while letting WhatsApp keep growing organically. He supported the new strategy with public remarks in which he basically admitted that his views on privacy and online identities had evolved.

Now, at the beginning of 2015, the situation looks perfect for messengers and at least partially gloomy for (semi) public, feed-based social networking as a tool for social-graph-based communication such as the original Facebook. While Facebook still grows as a whole, the active user number includes everybody who is logged in to Facebook anywhere, and it also includes people who only use Messenger. Frequently reports appear that show a growing neglect of the original Facebook by younger user groups. In addition there are signs that the usage of traditional social networks is dipping in some countires. Also, while still hundreds of millions of people regularly scan through their news feed, the excitement and appreciation has completely disappeared. Complaints about what’s been shown in the news feed are widespread. Studies even haven shown that the Facebook feed creates dissatisfaction and other negative emotions among users. That too might be one factor why people move to private chats with close friends and groups of preferred people. If you are like me then you have multiple ongoing group chats that do not have a beginning or an end – they are like a stream, but with people who closely interact with each other; people that do not annoy you and are relevant to you.

Today, WhatsApp has more than 600 million monthly active users. Facebook Messenger has more than 500 million, WeChat has 438 million, Line 170 million and Snapchat reportedly more than 100 million (the company does not publish official numbers). In 12 months from now, all these numbers will likely be much higher. Eventually, every owner of a smartphone in every country will likely use at least one of these services, probably even multiple ones. Unlike with traditional social networks that require users to actively check their streams, the push-based nature of messengers enables smartphone owners to use several messengers without too much mental costs.

It’s safe to assume that more messenger apps will turn into fully-fletched platforms, modelled after WeChat and Line that already follow this path. Over time these services are being transformed into hybrid solutions, trying to include the best from both the feed-based social networking and the chat-based messaging. Kik’s recent launch of a hashtag feature is another example of how that can look like.

Also, companies and brands will increasingly jump on the trend, encouraging messaging app makers to improve existing and launch new tools for b2c-interaction inside messengers. I really want to be able to quickly message stores or restaurants, something Path Talk is experimenting with. Already now there are startups that are completely reliant on WeChat, like the Chinese food delivery startup “Call a Chicken” that recently got funded. We can expect more of that. My guess is that Facebook might try to turn Messenger into a platform while keeping WhatsApp simple and focused. Having 2 successful horses in the race is quite a comfortable situation.

Messengers aside, there is one side-trend happening, which is Instagram. With more than 300 million active users, the idea of using photos (and videos) as an instrument for semi-personal one-to-many communication has proven to be a winner. Instagram is special because it can be used for social graph-based communication (= interacting with actual friends) as well as for interest graph-based communication (= interacting with/following strangers based on personal/shared interests). This is just anecdotal but I know people who have completely abandoned Facebook and use now a combination of Instagram and WhatsApp (or other messengers) to satisfy their social networking needs. I do not rule out that this becomes a widespread phenomenon. Somebody posting a text on Facebook about a good steak he/she had might only lead to yawns in 2015. If it even gets shown in contact’s news feeds. But a photo of that steak on Instagram usually receives a bunch of likes. It’s the power of visuals.

The past 8 years of social networking teach some interesting lessons:

  • No matter how smart people are, their capabilities of anticipating future technology trends and usage patterns are rather limited. I do not recall anybody who predicted the messaging trend back in 2008.
  • No matter how much smart people with power want others to behave in a certain way (like Zuckerberg’s no-privacy vision), it does not always work out.
  • Mark Zuckerberg might have been wrong at first, but after he realized that, he acted quickly, which paid off: No matter what happens with the original Facebook in 2015 – with Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, the company is very well positioned.
  • As usual, in hindsight, trends look obvious (it’s called the hindsight bias): The SMS was a massive success for a reason: People like texting on their phones. They also like to save money. Messaging apps are the logical result.