On Tuesday night, WhatsApp announced the addition of voice messaging to its service. In some ways, this news only underlined just how narrow the feature palette of the world’s leading messaging app has started to look. Other messaging apps have expanded functionality at a giddy pace recently. LINE and KakaoTalk have turned into game and publishing platforms, WeChat is morphing into a payment service and Kik has jumped on the sticker bandwagon. Amidst this Carnival, WhatsApp has remained resolutely chaste, focusing tightly on texting and photo-sharing. This pared down formula has worked well in the sense that the app has a massive lead in active user base in most countries in the world. But here’s the rub: WhatsApp is behind in several top app markets.
While WhatsApp may be the dominant messaging app in more than 100 countries in the world, it does not lead in the U.S., China, Korea or Japan. And those happen to be four of the most important app markets in the world. Turning messaging apps into gaming platforms is a move that has enabled LINE and KakaoTalk to start racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue — six of the top-10 biggest grossing apps in Korea on Wednesday were linked to the Kakao platform.
That is why it’s fascinating that while messaging apps like Kik and Tango are scrambling to mimic the game platform strategy, WhatsApp is having none of this childishness. The long anticipated game announcement still has not arrived. Instead, WhatsApp is making the relatively conservative and cautious move of adding voice messaging to its narrow feature range. Here’s all there is to it: You can now record a message by pushing a button and then either choose to delete it or send it.
As a new feature, it is far narrower in scope than the riot of options its major Asian rivals now offer. The danger for WhatsApp is now that WeChat, LINE and KakaoTalk are making so much money on their garish sticker and game services that they can afford to fund massive marketing campaigns across the globe. There are clear signs of this already happening. WeChat has recently rocketed up to become the No.1 app in markets like South Africa and Brazil, where it was relatively weak just a few months ago.
WhatsApp still dominates large swaths of Middle East, Africa and Latin America but its leadership is under ferocious attack. It will be interesting to see if the addition of voice messaging is enough to blunt the advance of challenger apps. At this point, the ideological purity of WhatsApp may be starting to jeopardize its revenue generation prospects. Furious, monastic opposition to advertising is highly admirable on some level, but it’s those corny manga stickers and “match three” games that are turning into a billion dollar business for WhatsApp’s biggest rivals.