WhatsApp moves into voice game: Should operators beware?

WhatsApp, the smartphone messaging service used by 300 million people globally each month, has announced plans to roll out voice messaging capability, in line with Facebook Messenger, BBM and WeChat.

The service, as displayed in a video on the WhatsApp blog, is dangerously simple; hold the microphone icon, make your recording, then release the icon.

“We spend a lot of time at WhatsApp thinking how we can make keeping in touch easier, and we know there’s no substitute for hearing the sound of a friend or family member’s voice,” the blog explains.

The strategy has certainly worked for the OTT service so far, with the company also confirming that of its 300m user base, there were at least 20m dedicated users in Germany, India, Mexico and Spain.

Not bad for a “tiny startup with a very basic idea, boring design and lots of competition”, as AllThingsD put it.

Yet this is the big issue. With the runners and riders in the telco messages game increasing exponentially and the competition as cutthroat as ever, who should be more scared: big mobile operators, or WhatsApp itself?

Koby Amedume, global director of comms at Acision, believes that for operators, the writing has been on the wall for a while, despite the fact that WhatsApp is new to mobile VoIP.

“The prevalence and disruptive nature of OTT will force operators to rethink their value propositions and the services that they provide their consumers,” he said. “WhatsApp’s announcement today illustrates how quickly OTT services are evolving, and fast delivering solutions that could impact operators’ revenues.

“Mobile operators must quickly establish themselves in this new world and how can they profit from delivering or partnering with OTT VoIP players,” he added.

Yet while the imagery of the big, lumbering telco being attacked by the zippy OTT vendor is a long-standing one, for WhatsApp the bigger threat could be closer to home.

For messaging services, the future now appears to be combining its off-the-shelf product with gaming platforms. It’s led to big wins for LINE and KakaoTalk, among others, with a BGR opinion piece claiming that WhatsApp has been “conservative” with its latest offering.

“It will be interesting to see if the addition of voice messaging is enough to blunt the advance of challenger apps,” Tero Kuittinen wrote, adding: “At this point, the ideological purity of WhatsApp may be starting to jeopardise its revenue generation prospects.”

The consensus, however, is that whilst WhatsApp has a large consumer base, it’s not truly global, despite the announcements of success in India and Mexico.

However, one aspect to think about concerning the adoption of voice messaging is that WhatsApp may gain in countries where non-Latin scripts are used, such as Russia, Greece and – whisper it quietly – China and Korea.

That’ll be the hope in the boardroom anyway. Yet the OTT/operator debate will continue to rumble on.

Learn more about the latest issues at Telecoms Tech World, in London on 26-27 November 2013. Find out how you can attend here.

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