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WhatsApp remains a mystery

By Jean-Claude Elias - Feb 07,2019 - Last updated at Feb 07,2019

Of all the communication channels available and based on the Internet, WhatsApp remains a unique case. It is not about figures; this part is clear and easy. It started in 2009 and was then sold to Facebook in 2014. Statistics dating to January 2018 put the users’ base at 1.5 billion and the average number of messages exchanged daily at 60 billion.

The mystery is not in the above numbers but in the fact that at this date nobody knows how WhatsApp makes money. Surely, there must be an explanation. After all Facebook did pay 19 billion US dollars to get it.

Of course, there were a few unfounded theories about it, and the famous application had its share of fake news and false rumours. It was said at some point that using WhatsApp would be free for the first year or so, and then users would be asked to pay one dollar of subscription fees per year.

Some also assumed that users would only believe that they were using the app free of charge, but that in fact their mobile phone service operator would be charging them a fixed fee for that, indirectly, in the monthly invoice or charge, and that the name “WhatsApp” was never to be mentioned next to that charge! The plot thickens…

Nothing of that was true or happened.

Apart from WhatsApp there is not a single application on mobile phones or on the Internet that is totally free. They all come with some kind of string attached, least of which is advertising. Even Facebook, the owner of WhatsApp relies on advertising to get money. Online newspapers (well, cross out the word “papers” in it), games, crosswords, YouTube videos, and the countless sites out there, they all make money either through advertising or by charging you directly, frankly. All, except for WhatsApp.

Those who, like myself, have installed an ad blocker on their web browser, often see this pop-up screen when they visit some web sites: “We use advertising to generate income, by blocking advertising you deprive us from this revenue. Thank you for disabling your ad blocker and unblocking advertising” (the exact wording may be slightly different from site to site).

There are a few theories behind WhatsApp makers “hidden intentions”. One of them, perhaps the main one, believes that the app owners are interested in your messages (and photos, videos, voice messages) contents and reprocess them for data mining or for intelligence of some sort. This could be done anonymously, without attaching your name and identity to the contents, or namely.

If true, this would be in blatant contradiction with WhatsApp declaration that your messages are encrypted from end to end, that they are not stored on any server as such, and that only you and your intended correspondent at the other end can actually read or see the decrypted contents. 

A recent discussion took recently place in Amman between renowned IT experts. The meeting was not about WhatsApp in particular, but the subject happened to be mentioned and discussed over that meeting. All agreed that nobody knew for sure how the owners of the application made money. Some suggested that since WhatsApp and Facebook were owned by the same company, perhaps Facebook was benefitting indirectly from information extracted anonymously from WhatsApp messages contents, leaving the application perfectly transparent, and apparently free.

Whatever the mystery, whatever the explanation, WhatsApp remains a near-perfect messaging application used by virtually all active persons on this planet. It has even stolen a significant part from the traditional email system, and has become the prime way of quickly, efficiently and pleasantly communicating over the global network.

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