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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

WhatsApp's hidden disruption - driving pseudo-"number portability"

I haven't done a full post about Facebook acquiring WhatsApp - there's been 100's from other places and mine would be lost in the noise. I expect that we'll hear a lot more in coming months anyway, given the CEO Jan Koum's announcement at MWC that it will be adding some form of voice communications in Q2'2014. (Interestingly, Facebook has been ramping up its own embedded VoIP feature in its Messenger app recently, as well).

Obviously I'm curious as to whether we'll see something WebRTC-like from either company as well. My suspicion is that it will be proprietary for now, but perhaps use certain aspects of WebRTC-like behaviour, perhaps in terms of the codecs or firewall/NAT-traversal. We will probably also see a PC-based browser endpoint for WhatsApp using WebRTC before the mobile app.

But that is separate to my thoughts for this post.

I'm wondering whether WhatsApp has another important role to play, which may also prove to be a game-changer for mobile. It is the largest of the so-called OTT players to link its IDs to your mobile phone number. (Viber and others do this too, while Skype and Facebook use a separate address-space).

I've actually been fairly scathing about the use of E164 (the international standard for both fixed and mobile phone numbers) by Internet and app players in the past, as it has tied users to a specific access provider, and not been easily extensible to PCs and tablets without SIM cards.

But WhatsApp is a bit more subtle. While the app keys your identity to your originally-entered phone number, you can also access your "account" from another device with a different phone number. This means you can use WhatsApp on a second phone, when you buy a local SIM card on arrival in a new country (I do this a lot), or just SIM-swap on your primary phone if it's unlocked.

What this means is that you can effectively do a basic form of mobile number portability "by the back door", even in countries where it's not mandated or has a complex/slow process for users to follow. You can get a new SIM or new phone contract - *with* a new number, but all your friends (if they use WhatsApp) don't need to change your contact details in their addressbook.

I still "appear" and can be contacted at +44 794xxxxxxx on WhatsApp, even when I'm in Singapore on +65 9xxxxx 


In effect, WhatsApp decouples your E164 phone number from your access provider and turns it into an OTT ID. It does mean that you need to keep your old number "live" eg sending one SMS per month on a prepay PAYG account, though - presumably it all gets a bit messy if the number expires and gets re-allocated to someone else, although that could probably be worked out in the cloud by looking at your social graph.

My sense is that this will drive continued growth and stickiness of WhatsApp in countries without MNP, or where it is cumbersome. It also means that every incidence of churn will likely further entrench its use.

One other comment about WhatsApp - it (or its various competitors like LINE) is indispensable for people with friends living abroad. International SMS pricing is still, for the most part, ludicrously high and often opaque to end-users. It took me 5 minutes to find that my UK operators charges me 30p (c$0.50) for sending texts to non-UK numbers. There isn't even a price listed on the website for international MMS/picture messages. Obviously, I message my friends in Singapore or the US or Germany via another chat application or email instead, as I'm sure most other people do as well.

It will be interesting to see how the still-minor telco RCS community handles this dilemma - it's pointless to discuss multi-operator interoperability, or RCS "hubs" or the IPX interconnect network, if it is driven by silly wholesale termination fees for messages. And yet I see little indication that there will be global, free RCS peering any time soon. And if users prefer WhatsApp to RCS some of the time (ie chatting to international friends) then they'll likely use it all of the time, especially if they churn as well.

3 comments:

Vuk Mateiovich said...

Dear Dean,

we're in the progress of doing just that. Starting an all MVNE and having the ear of multiple carriers...since we are forming a carrierless network. Termination and all.
I would really like to invite you for sharing your thoughts about the impossibilities.

vuk@scarlet.nl said...

Dear Dean,

we're in the progress of doing just that. Starting an all IP MVNE and having the ear of multiple carriers...since we are forming a carrier-less network. Termination and all.
I would really like to invite you for sharing your thoughts about the impossibilities.

Tierzero said...

is it me? maybe I don't understand the value of WhatsApp. It reminds me of the ill fated Time/AOL venture. I personally think that Facebook is drowning and WhatsApp is a straw... I could be wrong.