Just over a year ago, I wrote about the prolific rise of cross-platform mobile messaging apps along with the corresponding exodus of users in terms of “small circle conversation” on major social platforms. At that time , few people at my workshops or among clients ever  heard of WhatsApp. Even up until very recently, I would still get blank stares when asking people if they knew anything about it.

As of today that will no longer be an issue.

Facebook just bought WhatsApp for $19 Billion.

What is Whats App?

“What’s App is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. What’s App is available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone and Nokia and yes, those phones can all message each other! Because WhatsApp Messenger uses the same internet data plan that you use for email and web browsing, there is no cost to message and stay in touch with your friends. In addition to basic messaging WhatsApp users can create groups, send each other unlimited images, video and audio media messages.” – whatsapp.com

WhatsApp is headquartered in Mountain View, California and was founded in 2009 by ex-Yahoo Inc. employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum (now the company’s chief executive). The unique value proposition and vision behind WhatsApp was brilliantly explained in this post by the founders:  “Why we don’t sell ads“.

Why did Facebook buy it?

  • 450 Million worldwide users
  • 315 Million (70%) of those users use it every single day
  • 27 Billion messages sent per day (text, video, image)

I’ll let you do that math as to how much data this produces for Facebook to mine. I’ve been using it myself for nearly 3 years now. It has  become the dominant form of communication for myself, my close group of friends, and even my family when not chatting in-person.  We use it more than email, more than SMS, more than voice calls and more than any public social media platform when it comes to quick private communication.

Doesn’t Facebook already have enough data to mine that would keep it busy for the rest of humanity?

Not this kind of data. People use WhatsApp to stay in touch with close contacts (friends, family, work, etc…) 24-7. This is the evolution of SMS texting. I call it “texting on steroids” since it works on any platform, uses your existing data plan and seamlessly allows for video, image, and audio sharing as well as multiple users per group. The kind of data this provides is scary. What’s even scarier is the power of whoever holds the data.

Didn’t BlackBerry have this long ago with BBM and Apple with iMessage?

Sure, but they were proprietary and limited to users that owned the same piece of hardware. Blackberry finally woke up a few months ago and opened up BBM across all platforms by turning it into an app. The only problem is that they did this a few years too late ( I truly believe that BBM could have saved the company if they had done this earlier). As for Apple, it’s Apple, they are a closed system that innovates brilliantly but can never sustain its market share due primarily to the fact that open platforms always win in the long-run.

Why am I worried?

I don’t like so much information held in one place. I would have been just as worried if Google had bought it. You see, I’m not a fan of the direction Facebook has taken over the years. The sheer size of it has turned it into a kind of “jack of all trades but master of none” in terms of an actual social communication platform (which in its defense, it doesn’t necessarily claim to be). The one thing it is really good at though is growing in size to collect more data.

I’m also worried because nearly every acquisition I have ever seen tends to follow the same chain of events:

  1. Acquisition is announced
  2. Company being acquired announces it’s business as usual and that nothing will change regarding its product/service.
  3. Company doing acquiring announces how excited they are to be “working together”
  4. Cultures clash. Acquiring company makes some changes
  5. Original founders and executives of acquired company leave to form a new start-up
  6. Acquired company becomes a shell of its former self

In this blog post written today, Mr. Koum (WhatsApp co-founder) said the deal will give WhatsApp the flexibility to grow and expand without compromising the company’s principles. Here’s a specific quote:

“WhatsApp will remain autonomous and operate independently. You can continue to enjoy the service for a nominal fee. You can continue to use WhatsApp no matter where in the world you are, or what smartphone you’re using. And you can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting your communication. There would have been no partnership between our two companies if we had to compromise on the core principles that will always define our company, our vision and our product.”

I fully believe that he means what he is saying, however keep in mind that it is no longer up to him to maintain that promise. That is something Mr Koum and Mr. Acton gave up today by signing the papers.

I look forward to using their next product in a few years once they leave Facebook. In the mean time, I will continue to use WhatsApp so long as it continues to give me value and so long as my friends and family are on there. As for worrying about data mining, I decided long ago to assume that everything I share digitally, even on so-called “private” networks, will one day be public. This gives me peace of mind, but likely terrifies others.

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