Free, Secure Texting Worldwide – The Story of WhatsApp

Person using a computer to message.

WhatsApp is a free service owned by Meta that’s become one of the most popular messaging apps around. Founded in 2009, users can text anyone in their address book who also has installed the app.

Since Meta purchased it in 2014 for a whopping $19 billion, it has attracted more than 2 billion users in more than 180 countries. What’s been the key to its success, and how does WhatsApp make money? Read on to find out.

WhatsApp Overview and History

Since it started in 2009, WhatsApp has greatly surpassed many competing texting apps, such as iMessage, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat. As of 2016, users can send free, fully encrypted text, voice, and video messages. The app can also be used to send voice and video calls and share images and documents. WhatsApp works on Windows and Mac computers and, of course, cell phones and other mobile devices.

WhatsApp has a sister application called WhatsApp for Business, on which companies can create free profiles and link to their websites or Facebook pages. Millions of businesses now use WhatsApp to interact with customers. 

WhatsApp was the brainchild of Brian Acton and Jan Koum, who formerly worked at Yahoo! Koum founded WhatsApp Inc. in California in 2009. Although it started as merely an app to show if someone in your iPhone contacts list was at work or on a call, it soon evolved into a messaging service that initially used a subscription model.

By February 2013, WhatsApp had some 200 million active users. That year, after securing additional funding, it acquired a startup called the voice- and video-calling app SkyMobius. The service claimed 400 million active users by December 2013.

Here are some other key days in the company’s history:

  • August 2013: The company adds voice messages to its apps.
  • February 2014: Meta announces it’s acquiring WhatsApp for $19 billion.
  • August 2014: WhatsApp becomes the world’s most popular messaging app, with more than 600 million users.
  • September 2015: WhatsApp reports 1 billion users.
  • September 2017: Acton leaves the company to start a WhatsApp competitor called Signal.
  • January 2018: WhatsApp Business launches for small companies.
  • April 2018: Koum announces that he intends to leave the company.
  • September 2018: WhatsApp introduces group audio and video calling features.
  • January 2021: WhatsApp changes its privacy policy to allow it to share user data with Facebook. (The policy doesn’t apply in the European Union because it violates the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.)

How Does WhatsApp Make Money?

Although WhatsApp used to require a subscription, in 2016, it announced that it would be free to use. 

“For many years, we've asked some people to pay a fee for using WhatsApp after their first year,” the company wrote in a blog post at the time. “As we've grown, we've found that this approach hasn't worked well. Many WhatsApp users don't have a debit or credit card number and they worried they'd lose access to their friends and family after their first year. So over the next several weeks, we'll remove fees from the different versions of our app and WhatsApp will no longer charge you for our service.”

At the same time, the company said it would eschew the use of ads. So, how does it generate revenue? In a nutshell, it lets consumers use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organizations like banks, airlines, etc., with those companies paying a fee for the service. 

WhatsApp also has other paid tools that companies can use to gain market insights and measure various metrics. In addition, it offers a payment service in India, where it has the most user accounts at more than 400 million.

WhatsApp doesn’t publicize its financial statements, and Meta doesn’t specify its revenue from each of its subsidiaries. However, Forbes estimated that WhatsApp had earned $27 billion-$29 billion by the first quarter of 2022.

Revenue aside, many industry analysts believe a primary reason Meta bought WhatsApp was to harvest behavioral and personal data from users, including contacts and locations.

WhatsApp Marketing Strategies

WhatsApp doesn’t use TV, radio, or print, or other traditional marketing channels. Instead, it relies primarily on word-of-mouth. 

People generally find that WhatsApp is very easy to use. Combined with offering free or nearly free messaging (depending on the country), this has resulted in a massive user base that’s growing all the time, which allows WhatsApp to count on people to recommend the service to friends and family.

What’s Next For WhatsApp

According to WABetaInfo, WhatsApp is pushing out an update that appears to be designed to comply with EU regulations that require it to work with other messaging apps. 

In July 2023, the EU announced that starting in March 2024, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, ByteDance (owner of TikTok), Meta, Microsoft, and Samsung had to comply with the EU’s rules stemming from the Digital Marketing Act. One such rule is that messaging apps and other products and services must be compatible with those of third parties.

In other news, Mint reports that Meta is planning to allow WhatsApp users to share status updates as Instagram Stories. Users can already do this on Facebook, so it makes sense that Meta would allow it on WhatsApp. Meta hasn’t said exactly when this will be implemented. 

WhatsApp recently announced a new feature called Secret Code, which – along with another feature called Locked Chats – allows you to protect sensitive conversations and make them harder to find if a stranger gets into your phone. 

Specifically, Secret Code lets you set a unique password for Locked chats. You can also hide the Locked Chats folder from your chatlist.

Secret Code has already started rolling out and will be available globally “in the coming months,” WhatsApp says.

Finally, several AI products and features will soon be available on WhatsApp. “We are inspired by the possibilities of Generative AI, and how it can help people be more creative, productive, and entertained simply by sending a message,” the company says. “With so many conversations taking place on WhatsApp, we want to help people all over the world access this emerging technology.”

Three new AI tools are available now on a limited basis and will be extended to more users around the world in 2024. They include:

  • AI stickers: Users can now create a custom sticker that represents a thought or idea that applies to their chats.
  • AI chats: Meta’s AIs allow users to ask any question to find out more about topics or try to settle a debate in a group chat, including getting the perspective from dozens of characters Meta has created that respond in interesting ways.
  • Photorealistic image generation: By typing the prompt /imagine, AIs allow users to generate images to represent an idea, place, or person.