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WhatsApp quickly took over the messaging app market after debuting in the App Store 9 years ago, and now it helps more than 1.5 billion users call; video chat; and send free messages, photos, and voice notes across the world each month with the just an internet connection.

When it was first created in 2009 by former Yahoo employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum, the two focused heavily on security, touting the service's end-to-end encryption. The two beta-tested the app for iOS and debuted it exclusively in the App Store before creating a version for Android devices and web browsers. WhatsApp released its latest version for iOS in August, adding new stickers and the ability to search for gifs within your chat.

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Security Concerns

What was once WhatsApp's strength is now potentially one of its biggest weaknesses. When Facebook purchased WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, many at the time wondered whether the social media giant would try to use data from the messaging app to beef up its own advertising capabilities. Unfortunately, many of those fears ended up coming true, and both Acton and Koum have left the company they founded for this very reason.

Koum resigned from the company and Facebook's board this last April, with The Washington Post reporting that he left after clashing with Facebook over attempts to weaken WhatsApp's encryption and use personal data from people who had WhatsApp accounts but not Facebook accounts.

The app changed its terms of service in 2016 to accurately reflect that it was indeed sharing information with Facebook, regardless of if you used Facebook. Phone numbers, user habits, and much more from WhatsApp is now shared with Facebook, which has been on the wrong end of an endless stream of data sharing scandals and hacks since 2016. Continued complaints led Facebook to make yet another change to the terms of service this year, stating vaguely that they do not "use your WhatsApp account information to improve your Facebook product experiences or provide you more relevant Facebook ad experiences on Facebook."

Popularization and Latest Additions

Despite the security concerns, WhatsApp is still used widely across the globe for a number of reasons. It is completely free for users and only requires an internet connection to use, making a cheaper option for sending large files like photos and videos that would normally burn through lots of cellphone plan data.

In September, the app added group audio and video calls with up to four participants, and the call button is easy to find within specific chats. They also introduced an unsend feature that allows you to delete sent messages that are up to 13 hours old. Voice messages will also be played consecutively instead of users having to press play on each one thanks to the latest update.

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As it has become more popular worldwide, it has quickly become the app of choice for many who want to keep in touch with family and friends across borders, and for many it is the de facto app used for international calls and voice message sharing. WhatsApp says they have serviced nearly 2 billion minutes of calls made and manage over 60 billion messages sent per day.

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(Credit: Carlos Militante)

Pros

  • Cost. It's free to use and there are no ads, making it a frictionless, unencumbered app experience. As long as you have some form of internet connection, its an extremely easy app to use when sending photos, audio messages and videos.
  • End-to-End Encryption. This is still one of WhatsApps' most treasured features, protecting users and their information as it travels across continents. Messages sent on WhatsApp are secured as a default using Open Whisper Systems' Signal Protocol, which is also used in Signal's Private Messenger, Facebook Messenger, and other messaging apps.
  • Ease of Use. The app is still very easy to use, with buttons in every chat window for audio or video calls and simple ways to create and send messages to groups. Both the status updates and a "last seen" description under names that lets users know whether someone they'd like to contact has been online recently.
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Cons

  • Privacy Concerns. While users can still depend on the iOS app for end-to-end encryption, the revelations about Facebook's attempts to use data from the app, in conjunction with everything else we know about the social media giant's data sharing policies, should worry all users. That the app's creators felt strongly enough about their concerns to leave their positions this year is a worrying sign of who triumphed in the alleged disputes over data sharing between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and WhatsApp founder Koum.
  • Small Number of Group Call Members. The app should be applauded for adding group video and audio calls, but by limiting it to four participants, the platform is leaving itself well behind other messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, which can have up to 50 participants, and Apple's Facetime, which allows you to have up to 32 people on a call.

Bottom line

WhatsApp's app is still the cream of the crop in terms of messaging apps, allowing you to send video, photos, and audio files for free with an internet connection while also offering audio and video calling capabilities. It is still safer than Facebook Messenger and more popular worldwide than many of its competitors like Viber, WeChat and Line.

Apps

Competitive products

  • Viber. The app, available for both iOS and Android, is very popular across Asia and provides many of the same features as WhatsApp, including video and audio calling in addition to messaging.
  • Facebook Messenger. Facebook's own messaging app is not attached to a phone number but your Facebook account. The app allows for audio and video calls and offers more call participants than WhatsApp.
  • Line. Line is wildly popular in Japan and Thailand and features a digital wallet in addition to messaging services similar to WhatsApp.
  • Messages. The iOS Messages app on iPhones and iPads is an easy way to chat other friends. As long as they are also on iOS devices.

Also see

Jonathan is a Contributing Writer for CNET's Download.com. He's a freelance journalist based in New York City. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.