Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

No, Facebook’s Not Buying WhatsApp (But Keep an Eye on It)

WhatsApp hit the tech news circuit today because of a somewhat speculative article in TechCrunch asserting that Facebook has been sniffing around the mobile messaging company.

But the Facebook acquisition talks aren’t happening, said multiple sources. WhatsApp gave us the following statement: “The TechCrunch article is a rumor and not factually accurate. We have no further information to share at the moment.”

Meanwhile, Facebook gave a standard non-helpful statement of: “We don’t comment on rumors or speculation.”

But that doesn’t mean WhatsApp isn’t worth talking about.

For me, a rare interview with WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to at our postponed Dive Into Mobile conference. The good news is, Koum is appearing at the new edition on April 15 and 16 at the same venues back in New York City, well before the start of the 2013 hurricane season.

Here’s what is definitely true: WhatsApp is one of the largest mobile apps in the world, hands down. You thought Instagram was a massive independent mobile app before Facebook bought it? It’s not even close.

Facebook and Google have both been very interested in buying WhatsApp in the past, but the company is fiercely independent. (In fact, former Google corp dev guy Neeraj Arora became so intrigued by the company when Google was trying to buy it late last year, that he jumped ship and now runs business for WhatsApp.)

WhatsApp hasn’t released much in the way of numbers, but it is one of the biggest apps on just about every mobile platform out there.

For instance, it recently crossed the 100 million download milestone on Google Play. The only other non-Google apps with that many downloads are Skype, Facebook, Angry Birds and Flash. It’s the No. 1 paid app on iOS in more than 100 countries.

As of August, WhatsApp said it was sending and receiving as many as 10 billion messages per day.

Still, it’s not necessarily clear how WhatsApp will evolve — right now it is a very good substitute for paid text messaging from carriers, especially across international borders. It’s a fast, clean mobile app that doesn’t have any of the complications and annoyances of Web applications ported to phones. But messaging is all it does.

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum

WhatsApp was founded by Koum and Brian Acton, after they both were in engineering roles at Yahoo for about a decade. The company is run by a small team in Mountain View — it was 30 people last time I checked.

On the money side, WhatsApp has significant funding from Sequoia Capital and is privately valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The company makes money by charging $0.99 for its iPhone app, while leaving other platforms free. It also has struck carrier deals in places like Hong Kong because it is such a popular motivation for mobile data usage.

But here’s the thing. WhatsApp is very different from Facebook or any other social network. First of all, it isn’t really a social network. Users connect their phone address books to find others on the service. There’s no notion of a password. If users delete the app or get a new phone, their contacts don’t carry over.

And second of all, WhatsApp is not supported by advertising — unlike Facebook, Google and almost everything on the Internet. “Advertising isn’t just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought,” Koum wrote in a blog post this summer. “Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.”

So sure, everybody has their price — but that’s a big fat not-for-sale sign to any Internet company acquirers.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik