WhatsApp has a billion users, and it got there way quicker than Gmail did

You can have a ball with a billion users
You can have a ball with a billion users
Image: Reuters/Jon Nazca
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Google’s parent company Alphabet reported a stellar set of fourth quarter numbers yesterday (Feb. 1), overtaking Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. On the earnings call, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai also revealed that its email service Gmail had reached the major milestone of 1 billion monthly active users in the last quarter.

Somewhat lost in the Alphabet earnings hullabaloo was news of another messaging service reaching its own milestone yesterday. WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Facebook, reported it had reached a billion monthly active users that day in a blog post, bolstering its position as the world’s most popular messaging app. Not far behind is Tencent’s QQ Messenger, with 860 million monthly active users (PDF), while Facebook Messenger reports having 800 million monthly actives. Gmail, of course, has Google’s own messaging app, Hangouts (originally called GChat) embedded in its web interface or available as a standalone mobile app, but Alphabet doesn’t report individual user figures for the product.

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum was primed for this announcement, telling the annual DLD design and technology conference in Munich on Jan. 18 that the platform was closing in on the 1 billion mark. Perhaps what’s most striking about the milestone are the other metrics Koum revealed in a Facebook post yesterday (Feb. 1). WhatsApp has a relatively tiny team of 57 engineers, who are responsible for overseeing a system that delivers 42 billion messages a day. We don’t know the precise headcounts of the engineering teams for WhatsApp’s competition–including Facebook Messenger–but it’s difficult to imagine a leaner team for a product with similar reach.

The pace of WhatsApp’s user growth has been phenomenal: It hit the billion mark only seven years after its launch. Gmail, by contrast, has taken 11 years to grow its userbase to the same size. Facebook Messenger (initially Facebook Chat) launched in 2008, meaning it’s taken about eight years to get to its current 800 million active monthly users.

The timing of the WhatsApp announcement is perhaps another example of the jabs Alphabet and Facebook have been trading at a time when both firms are seeing their stock soar. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg cheekily made an announcement about an imminent AI breakthrough at Facebook just as Google was about to trumpet a major AI achievement of its own.

Koum and his team appear to be planning a slew of new features and strategies for the app this year. In January, the service dropped its $0.99 annual fee, while also announcing that it would start to develop tools for businesses for the first time. It hinted that these tools would take advantage of chat bots in some way, a shift towards embracing the “conversational UI,” or user interface, that is being spearheaded by startups like Slack, a messenger app for companies, and Finn, a digital assistant service delivered through chat platforms that’s in the works.

Buried in a WhatsApp beta release that came out in January–meant largely for developers–are new features like data-sharing with Facebook, an encryption notification system, and video calls. There’s no certainty that a beta-tested feature will make it to production, but its inclusion gives insight into the WhatsApp product team’s thinking. An integration with Facebook might seem like cannibalism, but the network’s Messenger userbase is largely in north America while WhatsApp is big, well, almost everywhere else.

If WhatsApp does integrate more tightly with Facebook, it could unlock even greater expansion of its userbase. And when that happens, as the WhatsApp announcement makes clear, the platform will be even closer to reaching the 6 billion people on the planet not already using the service.