Why WhatsApp Is so Popular

It was first on the scene and continues to upgrade its services

WhatsApp, the popular messaging and voice-over-IP service owned by Facebook, helps people send text messages, voice calls, recorded voice messages, video calls, images, documents, and user locations. More than one billion people worldwide use it to stay in touch. Why is it so popular, even when faced with some big competitors? There are a number of reasons. We break it down for you.

WhatsApp Was First

When WhatsApp rolled out in 2009, it was the first of its kind. There was Skype, which excelled at voice and video calling, but Skype was for the PC and made a late entry into mobile phones. WhatsApp was to free messaging what Skype was to free calling. Although other mobile messaging apps, such as Viber and Kik, came out later, WhatsApp remained the app to beat.

Person using WhatsApp on iPhone X in front of a MacBook
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WhatsApp wasn't a VoIP app at launch. It was only for messaging and came on the market with a new communication model. Instead of being perceived as an alternative to Skype, where people had to choose, it was welcomed as a new way of texting that had a place alongside Skype.

WhatsApp Killed SMS

When WhatsApp launched, people complained about the price of SMS texts. It was costly and limited. In some parts of the world, one message could cost as much as a dollar. WhatsApp solved this problem by allowing you to send SMS messages to other WhatsApp users without counting words, without being deprived of multimedia content, and without being restricted to a set number of contacts. All for free.

A close up of a woman messaging her friends using her smartphone in a cafe.
 Tom Werner / Getty Images

Before WhatsApp, mobile carriers often sold separate texting plans, with caps and additional fees, for SMS text messages and media-enriched MMS messages. After WhatsApp and its competitors broke through, carriers no longer found value in charging for these services. Today, in the United States, it's rare for SMS or MMS to be sold separately or individually metered.

You Are Your Number

WhatsApp went one step further than Skype when it came to identifying users on the network. It identifies people through their phone numbers. No need to ask for a username. If you have someone's phone number in your contacts, it means they're in your WhatsApp contacts if they use the app. This makes it easier for texting than Skype.

HashTag sign shown on a blue ripped paper.
 jayk7 / Getty Images

On WhatsApp, anyone who has your number has you on the network, and you cannot choose to be offline. You also cannot hide behind a fake identity.

WhatsApp Works on Most Platforms

WhatsApp started on Android and iOS mobile phones, then transitioned seamlessly to mobile tablets. It widened its user base further by including Windows Phones, Nokia phones, Jio (in India), and more. The app synced across all the supporting devices and rapidly accumulated millions of users.

Android or iOS which is better
melenita2 / Flickr

Expanded Feature Set

WhatsApp's features were new in 2009. It pleased its users with things like group chat and the ability to send pictures and other multimedia elements along with messages. In time, as competition increased, WhatsApp added its free-calling feature and became a VoIP giant. Then, it added video calling and recorded voice messages to its offerings.

Using WhatsApp on desktop
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WhatsApp Is All About Mobility

WhatsApp was made for mobile devices and not for traditional computers, so it didn't need to adapt to the mobile environment like its PC-first competitors. It came at a time when smartphone adoption was booming, and there was an unprecedented shift from the computer to the tablet PC and smartphone. Also, 2G and 3G data became more accessible and cheaper in many places. Although WhatsApp is a free app, data rates apply in some instances.

Time Advantage

WhatsApp launched at a time when people needed what it had to offer. It went unchallenged for a couple of years before real competition came around. By then, the network effect had started, which is the most important factor in its success. Because communications between WhatsApp users are free, using an app with a wide user base is advantageous, and you can't get much wider than WhatsApp's user base.