Sunday, May 13, 2012

What's Up With WhatsApp?

I'm continually astounded by the fact that WhatsApp is as popular as it is. It just doesn't fit in my brain. I have strong feelings about this.

In arguing with people about it, the same points keep being raised. Let's take a sceptical look at them, shall we?

But first...

What Is WhatsApp?

It describes itself as a  "...a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS."

So, in other words, it's an app you install on your smartphone (or Blackberry) that's intended to replace SMS by letting you exchange short messages with your contacts through a different service that, at least by implication, costs less than SMS.

So What's Wrong With That?

Well, nothing. Except that it sucks.

Let's look at how WhatsApp works.

You download and install the app on your mobile device. You set up your account by punching in your cellphone number, then it scans your device's address book looking for other people who have their phone numbers associated with WhatsApp accounts. It then creates its own little contact list where you can initiate conversations with your contacts.

Sounds pretty much like any instant messaging application, right? Right. Except for that whole phone number thing. That was a bit weird.

And weird it is. In fact you cannot use WhatsApp anywhere but on a cellular device.

What if you're sitting at your PC and you want to send or receive messages from there? No can do.

What if you're using a device with a different phone number to the one on your phone, like a tablet for example? That device needs to have its own WhatsApp account with its own number. Unless your contacts have both numbers, they can't send/receive to that device.

What if you're on prepaid and you haven't topped up your data bundle? Can it still send and receive messages? Nope. (SMS can still be received when you're out of airtime, even if you can't send).

Are your conversations at least backed up in the cloud so you can refer back to them later, if your phone is stolen or something? Nope. You can export your data manually and upload it to Google Drive or something, but you have to remember to do it.

Are there open APIs so I can get WhatsApp to work neatly with other services like IFTTT? Nope. Nothing like that.

Is it really free? I'm glad you asked. That point seems to be a matter of dispute. Going to the WhatsApp website, there's no mention of any cost, and several references to it being free. But if you go to download the app, like in the Google Play Store for example, you're greeted with this sentence:

"First year FREE! ($0.99/year after)"
You'd think they'd mention that in their FAQ, but they don't.

Sure, R7.00 a year isn't much to pay. But why pay anything at all when you can get a better service elsewhere that actually is free? (This is in addition to the charges for data used in sending and receiving messages - but that's so little as to be negligible. That's what they mean when they say "...without having to pay for SMS")

What's Better Than WhatsApp?

Well, just about everything, really. My personal favourite is Google Talk.

Let's list the features of interest here:
  • Completely free. No paying for anything ever. (except the same data charges you would pay in WhatsApp, which is also a tiny, tiny amount. And that only applies when sending/receiving messages over your data network, which isn't strictly necessary)
  • Use it on any device connected to the Internet: phone, tablet, PC, netbook, wristwatch... whatever. One account everywhere. People can find you using either your Gmail address or by being in your Google+ circles. Start chatting on one device, and continue the conversation on another without missing anything.
  • All your conversations are backed up to your Gmail account, so you can refer back to them later. This means not having to write down phone numbers, addresses or names. Just search.
  • Runs on the open Jabber protocol, which means you can use any Jabber client to access your Gtalk account. Of which there are hundreds. Open APIs let you use it for various cool other things, like updating your Facebook, Tweeting or whatever.
  • Includes voice and video chat. While these use more data that just text, they're still cheaper than an actual phone call (depending on how much you're paying for data - your mileage may vary)
  • Embedded in the Google universe - use the same account and contact list for Google+, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Latitude and approximately a floppityjillion others.

Are There Any Good Reasons To Use WhatsApp?

Not that I can see. Podcaster Tim Haak makes a good case for using WhatsApp in addition to other IM, clients which seems to work for him. But I suspect his is an edge-case.

Here's the crux of my argument against WhatsApp and for Google Talk: when I send someone a message, I want to send it to the person, not the device. With WhatsApp (like with SMS) I'm sending a message to the phone, but with Google Talk I'm sending it to the person, no matter which device they happen to be using at the time.

Communication tools are intended to enable communication between people, not devices.

So What's The Sceptical Angle?

When you're comparing two different medical interventions, the rational approach is to look at the proposed benefits and weigh them against the risks, then decide based on that.

In my assessment, the "risks" (or rather, "cost") of WhatsApp is slightly higher than that of Google Talk (again, my favourite example, but it's actually one of many alternatives), but the benefits aren't as high.

I'm not calling for a boycott of WhatsApp or anything. I think it's a pretty good tool, by 2006 standards anyway. But this is 2012, and we have far better tools available now that cost less. Unless you have a very specific reason for using WhatsApp, why use it?

(Go ahead, call me a Google cultist if you like. But you'll note that I didn't mention the new Google+ Messenger as a viable alternative, because it sucks too. Although it doesn't suck as much as WhatsApp.)