Using the “It Sucks” defense isn’t going to get you very far in a debate, but it will get you some news coverage – ask Pavel Durov.
Like a petulant child unimpressed by his Christmas present, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov laid into the popular messaging app at the recently concluded TechCrunch Disrupt conference. The fact that the guy owns one of WhatsApp’s biggest competitors should weaken the claim (like the two-word claim wasn’t weak enough to begin with), but to his credit, Durov didn’t leave it at that. He went on to explain why he feels the way he does about the Facebook subsidiary.
Do you even cloud, bro?
WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton stated at this year’s F8 developer conference that there were no plans to give developers access to the application (In a room full of developers. Ouch). Telegram, on the other hand, does have an API, which means that developers can build all manners of cool chat clients for the app and integrate its functionality into larger applications with more diverse functionality.
WhatsApp Web, the much ballyhooed online version of the messaging app, was welcomed with excitement but suffered a similar fate as the second season of True Detective; overpromised, underdelivered. WhatsApp Web requires the computer and phone be ‘paired,’ making the web service just an interface for the phone app. The lack of cloud storage also compounds data usage since messages stored locally on the phone need to be routed to the computer every time the web version is used.
Telegram is cloud-based and has a standalone web client. As a result, users have access to their messages even if they happen to lose their phone or need to delete the app.
WhatsApp scored one star out of a possible five in an annual data privacy exercise conducted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The app came away with the poorest performance in a field of notable colleagues like SnapChat, DropBox, and LinkedIn.
In the secure messaging scorecard by the EFF, Telegram’s secret chat checks off all security criteria whereas WhatsApp manages to score only on two of the seven. Possibly the biggest cause of concern for users is that WhatsApp doesn’t require law enforcement agencies provide them with a warrant before handing over user data. Most recently, it was found that a security flaw in WhatsApp Web put over 200 million users at risk.
To be fair though, despite being considerably safer than WhatsApp, Telegram isn’t as secure as it makes itself out to be. The apps encryption algorithm was developed in-house, which is considered bad practice in the security industry. As this post shows (Warning: Math), there are problems with the methods Telegram used, the chief of which is that its encryption protocols weren’t written by cryptographers. However, tests such as the one run by the EFF show Telegram is still a considerably safe messaging application.
So much so that it has gained the trust of ISIS.
The ability to send large files in almost any format is another important feature that gives Telegram a leg up on WhatsApp; Telegram offers a file-size upload limit of 1GB, compared to WhatsApp’s measly 16 MB (50 MB for WhatsApp Plus users). Additionally, WhatsApp only allows the transfer of media files, whereas with Telegram, users can send all file types. And as mentioned earlier, Telegram stores stuff in the cloud, so data is easily accessible across devices and platforms.
It’s clear that there’s a strong case against WhatsApp being the best messaging client out there. Then why oh why is WhatsApp still the most popular app in its category?
First Mover Advantage – Everywhere
WhatsApp passed 900 million active users this month. The service is well on its way to having about one seventh of the world’s population as part of its user base.
People use WhatsApp because other people use WhatsApp. It’s called the Network Effect. People in general use WhatsApp because the app was the first real alternative to the messaging clients of old on mobile platforms. Not only was WhatsApp first, it was also quick to be first everywhere, from iOS to Android, Blackberry and even Symbian with haste.
WhatsApp also kept things real simple for most of its formative years. The UI was simple (though frustratingly so at times), the features easy to figure out, and the messaging capabilities reliable. As a result, the app became the trusted choice for even the least savvy smartphone users.
As of August 2015, WhatsApp is the most widely used mobile messaging app. Though LINE is at first place when user growth numbers are considered for Q1 2015, it isn’t yet a threat to WhatsApp considering that it has only mustered 200 million to date. Facebook Messenger is the second fastest growing app in the space, and also the second most used app overall. If these numbers are anything to go by, WhatsApp’s biggest competition right now is Facebook itself. But not really.
The way Facebook sees things, Messenger is a platform. The app has a variety of tools for developers, many of which are aimed at the e-commerce market. That should explain why WhatsApp hasn’t gone the API way – it would cannibalize some of the marketshare that Facebook is looking to corner with Messenger.
Between Messenger and WhatsApp, Facebook has an iron grip over a big part of the messaging industry. There isn’t a single competitor on the horizon – app or platform – that is truly threatening its numbers. So while WhatsApp might “suck”, people dig it and it’s likely part of a much bigger plan for Facebook Messenger.
Prateek Jose is a writer and engineering undergrad from India with an unhealthy obsession for obscure historical trivia. Conversations about absurdist fiction and the technological singularity make his day. He’s already uploading parts of his brain to servers by writing for websites such as this one.