Are you fed up with your low texting limit if you’re on a budget mobile contract? Or do you want to avoid paying for texting folks back home when you’re on holiday, or texting friends who live overseas? There’s really no need to be spending any money on international texts these days, with the amount of free messaging apps out there…
One such effort is WhatsApp, an impressive cross-platform instant messaging app that lets you send unlimited text-like messages to contacts all over the world, and mostly delivers on its promise to let you "say goodbye to SMS!" Price-wise, the app is free for the first year, and then 69 pence for every year thereafter.
On a global level, WhatsApp is perhaps the most popular of these sort of applications, and a recent update keeps the experience fresh and fun. The company doesn't disclose user data, but according to Google Play the Android app alone has been downloaded 1.2 million times – which is double Skype’s number, for example. While feature-wise, it doesn't do anything spectacularly different from its rivals, WhatsApp's value comes from its popularity and installed user base. Furthermore, it’s generally less buggy and more frictionless than other similar apps.
For the uninitiated, WhatsApp is an instant messaging platform that interfaces like a smarter version of Android's stock SMS. It runs smoothly on 3G or Wi-Fi, and supports Android, iOS, Symbian, Windows Phone and BlackBerry smartphones. WhatsApp has all the customisation features you'll find in any other text messaging service, and then some. For instance, you can share your location on Google Maps, attach an image, video, audio clip, or contact to a message, insert a cute emoticon from a large palette of emoji, or change your conversation's wallpaper. Alerts can be turned on or off.
Like Apple iMessage and BlackBerry Messenger, WhatsApp also notifies you when a message has been received on the other side. Your recipient can't pull the "sorry for the late response, just read your text!" excuse like he or she can with normal texting.
A welcome new feature lets you start a group chat for up to ten people, and title the conversation, something like "Dan's birthday dinner." Best of all, you can leave the group anytime so you're not spammed by irrelevant alerts. You won't find this in Google Talk.
One thing that’s missing, though, is the facility to add a message or caption to a photo before you send it. Instead, you have to send a photo, and then send a message, or vice versa. It can be very confusing for a recipient to see a photo without some form of instant context.
Every WhatsApp account is tied to a single phone number. When you launch the app for the first time, WhatsApp automatically scans existing phone numbers in your address book and extracts the ones using WhatsApp, so you can begin messaging those people right away.
I was surprised by how many of my contacts already used WhatsApp. If you can't find your friend, you can easily shoot them an invitation from within the app. A small, but helpful, additional feature is that it automatically adds new buddies when they join the platform – the app requires read/write permissions for your contact information, and it will run a scan every time you add a contact number.
WhatsApp is based on an open source chat protocol, XMPP, the same one used by Apple iMessage and BlackBerry Messenger, which has been the target of a few successful hacks. For instance, last year security researchers were able to intercept and read WhatsApp messages by sniffing WhatsApp data over insecure Wi-Fi networks.
Fortunately, the current version encrypts your messages so that even if someone captures them in transmission, they won't be able to read them.
For someone with friends and family all over the world, WhatsApp is indispensable for its free, fast, unlimited messaging and slick interface. But if you're satisfied with your existing instant messaging service, be that Google Talk, Skype, Yahoo Messenger or whatever, WhatsApp doesn't offer much more in terms of features.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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