Facebook Blockbuster: 6 Things To Know About WhatsApp

One App, $19 Billion

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had the Facebook checkbook out again Thursday, paying an eye-popping $19 billion in cash and stock for a single app. What app? WhatsApp. What's that?

"Our goal for Facebook over the next few years is to deliver a set of new mobile products that allow people to share any type of content with any set of people they want," said Zuckerberg in a recent earnings call with investors. "WhatsApp fits this vision perfectly."

Here's what's what about WhatsApp.

What's WhatsApp?

WhatsApp lets smartphone users exchange texts, images, videos and audio files without paying a per-message fee to either person's carrier. It's really that simple. Just download the free WhatsApp Messenger app for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia or Windows Phone, sign up for the service by registering the mobile number and you're ready to route SMS and MMS messages over 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi to anywhere in the world for free. There are a few catches, though, so read on.

App To App

The biggest catch is that WhatsApp can only exchange messages with other people who have WhatsApp. Not a big deal, really, since Google Play reports between 100 million and 500 million installs for Android devices alone. And if that doesn't convince you, the chart at left shows the rise of WhatsApp message traffic since its introduction in 2011. One reason for its meteoric growth is its simplicity. Once a mobile number is registered, WhatsApp taps the phone's contact list and displays everyone on it who already has the app installed on their own phone. That removes all guesswork and simplifies setup to just about zero. For some people, though, that might also introduce a downside. Read on.

Too Many Contacts!

People with a lot of contacts might not enjoy scrolling through the single, massive list into which WhatsApp places all contacts by default. There's a search function that's super-fast and pares down the list as each letter is typed, and a slider displays a big letter for contact first-names as they scroll past. That's all great, but the ability to speak contact names would be even better. Which leads us to our next observation.

Voice Message

It would be impossible to calculate the number of car accidents avoided (and MMS messages never invoiced) since phones began converting speech to text. WhatsApp takes that a step further. When speaking a message, it actually records and sends the spoken message as is. Since the WhatsApp app will be receiving it on the other end, there's never the problem of the receiver being unable to play back the message; it's guaranteed.

Device Access

WhatsApp does require a substantial amount of device access. It needs access to SMS and contacts, of course, and asks permission to create, use and delete contacts and set passwords. It tracks the user's approximate network location and precise GPS coordinates. It gets to modify or delete data on USB storage and permission to use all available network connections, to read the phone status and contact card and to make calls. It needs to modify system settings, install and uninstall shortcuts, take pictures and videos, record audio and test access to protected storage. It runs at startup and knows the status of other running apps. It might have an effect on battery life; it can prevent the device from sleeping, control vibration and toggle sync on and off and read sync settings and stats. The upshot is never having to log in; it's always on and always connected, just like SMS. When Wi-Fi is available, it automatically switches away from the carrier network.

A nnual Fee

WhatsApp is free for the first year. Once people are hooked, that's when they bang you with the annual fee, which is 99 cents. That's right. People with an unlimited data plan can message until their 4G radios burn out and it still costs less than a dollar a year (although international charges might apply in some cases). The only other thing you need to know is where to download WhatsApp Messenger. There's also a Web version.