5 Questions now Facebook have bought WhatsApp

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BIG news in the tech world as Facebook has acquired messaging app WhatsApp for an astonishing $16bn – which apparently works out as paying between 0.1 and 0.15 cents for every WhatsApp message sent to date. So what does it all mean? Here’s five questions we’re asking following the deal.

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1) Are Facebook are bricking it over messaging?

Maybe. The received wisdom in tech now is that the traditional text message is dead – with apps like WhatsApp and BBM replacing it. The benefit of these new platforms is that they don’t cost the user per message (like how text messages used to cost 10 pence), and that multimedia content can be more easily embedded without too much hassle. Remember how awful sending an MMS photo used to be? That’s no longer a problem.

It also further takes power away from the mobile operators – who used to be able to charge for messaging separately, allowing them to charge loads. Now it’s all handled by apps and regular internet data, the mobile operators have become just a fat data pipe to exchange data on with less power to act… which is good news if you’re a big digital player like Facebook.

More broadly – messaging has become an increasingly bigger deal. It seems rumours of the death of instant messaging with the advent of social media were exaggerated, with consumers now looking for a new private means to converse with contacts outside of the gaze of the Facebook wall or public Twitter profile.

All of the major players have come out with their own attempts to capitalise on this: (Facebook owned) Instagram recently launched direct messaging, Twitter have made DMs in their apps more WhatsApp like (you can now send photos as DMs) and even Facebook have launched their own Facebook Messenger app, which for all intents and purposes works just like WhatsApp, but uses your Facebook contacts instead. The big threat to Facebook is that with Messaging becoming popular, it gives companies like WhatsApp an opportunity to get in on what they consider to be their turf – breaking their previous stranglehold on communications.

Which I guess is why they’ve paid a cool sixteen billion to knock-out the competition.

2) Does Facebook now own messaging?

Not by a long shot – as mentioned above there’s still options available from Twitter and of course, Apple iMessages and Google Hangouts, to replace the traditional text message. Oh, and don’t forget the Snapchat behemoth – who’s owner turned down a $3bn offer from Facebook.

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Perhaps more importantly, its worth remembering that WhatsApp isn’t big everywhere in the world – whilst it has found dominance in the English speaking world, very similar apps like Line and Viber Messenger are the default option in other countries. So perhaps we can now expect the big tech companies to start bidding wars for the remaining messengers on the market.

3) Are Facebook worried that the kidz are abandoning them?

Maybe. Despite reports earlier this year that kids are abandoning Facebook, it later turned out that the study sample it was based on was tiny and unrepresentative. This said – its definitely wise for Facebook not to be resting on its laurels as these emerging messaging platforms are certainly appealing to younger people.

Perhaps more crucially, WhatsApp is very much a “mobile first” proposition. Whilst Facebook was conceived and initially developed to be a website accessed on a full size computer, mobile is increasingly becoming the primary way of accessing online content. So apps built around mobile are always going to be more attractive than clunky old Facebook. With this is mind, buying access to another icon on everyone’s homescreen seems like a very good idea.

4) How much control will Facebook exert?

Here’s a thought: Now they own WhatsApp, Facebook now own three independent messaging platforms, that save for minor variations, are all rather similar. There’s Facebook Messenger, Instagram (with Instagram Direct capabilities) and now WhatsApp.

Though Facebook have said they’re not planning to change WhatsApp and want to keep it running ‘independently’ from the main Facebook site, surely sooner or later they’ll have to deal with this bizarre situation?

The slightly awkward situation for them too is going to be that in figuring out how to mesh it all together – do they take the gamble and kill WhatsApp, sending users to Facebook Messenger? Or lose brand consistency and inexplicably call Facebook’s chat services “WhatsApp”, which is essentially meaningless?

5) Could Facebook become more of an identity platform than a site in itself?

Here’s a thought: the purchase can also be viewed as a landgrab for space on users’ homescreens. Facebook have been buying apps and releasing separate apps: there’s Facebook proper, Facebook Messages, a Facebook Photo app, they’ve just released an app called “Paper” which is supposed to compete with the likes of Flipboard, and the company have also gobbled up Instagram and now WhatsApp. That’s a lot of icons and space that Facebook have deliberately chosen to own on the homescreen – rather than just run it all through the Facebook app.

Could this eventually lead to a situation where Facebook becomes more of an identity service? Facebook’s core functions are already strangely disparate: on the main Facebook site you can now manage events and upload photos, and post on walls… for everything else, you need an app. Maybe eventually we will reach a point in which your Facebook login becomes your identity, and how you define what people you know and how you’re connected to them… and then all of the other stuff: photos, messaging, events… pretty much everything else you do online, will be handled by other distinct services, with Facebook handling the logins?

Whatever happens, interesting times are ahead. Don’t be surprised if Google and Apple are eyeing up Snapchat as we speak.

James O’Malley