A voice-calling feature from WhatsApp, the instant messaging (IM) app, had been long speculated about. Thanks to leaked screenshots of the WhatsApp website, which often containing hidden beta versions of features to be added later, it is now near-certain that a launch is in the pipeline. Though WhatsApp is arguably the IM service with the largest use base—600 million monthly active users (MAUs)—its data-enabled voice-calling service has to reckon with a few significant factors before it can be similarly successful.
First, WhatsApp’s voice service would be a late entrant. It will have to compete with existing service providers like Skype, which has 300 million MAUs, and Viber, with 210 million MAUs. Given Skype has been around, both on mobile and laptop platforms, for quite a few years now, and that too, primarily as a voice-calling service, it has worked out the kinks of the business, from user interface to revenue model (the service operates on a freemium model)—as has Viber. WhatsApp has to figure out a revenue model and see if it is acceptable to its existing user base, so accustomed to uncharged service. Second, the company has to also deal with telecom companies (telcos), which have been rallying with the government to get data-enabled free IM/voice-calling services to share revenue—claiming that such services erode their revenue. Though governments, including India’s, have either turned down or are still mulling over the demand, telcos, for their part, have been proactive in coming up with competing services, like, say, an Airtel’s Hike. With so many in the running, WhatsApp doesn’t exactly have the wide playing field it had when it entered with its IM service.