Who Are You, Who Who... WhosApp?

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Among the many perspectives discussed surrounding Facebook's $19BN acquisition of WhatsApp, one that I have not seen is the problem of user definition, which differ significantly from Facebook to WhatsApp.

In order for a messaging system - Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage, BBM, email, or carrier-based SMS - to send you a message, it needs to identify you. It needs to know, in the immortal words of The Who, "Who Are You?"

When it comes to mobile messaging, there actually are two camps to identifying users. I am not talking about whether you need to use your real name or not - that is its own Internet philosophy argument - but how a system names, identifies and finds you.

The Account Principle

iMessage, Facebook, email all use "The Account Principle". You sign up somewhere for an account, get a password, and then use that username and password to log in pretty much everywhere.

The basic unit of communication is an account, an actual person.

The upside is that you can be logged in simultaneously on your iPhone, Nexus 7, iPad, laptop and desktop. Messages can be sent from everywhere and reach everywhere. In many ways, this reflects the way people want messaging to work. I am not a device, I am a person. The device is just a tool I use to access the service at one moment. Whichever device I am on, let me message there as smoothly as anywhere else.

The downsides?

  1. You still need to set up an account and verify it. This may not appear to be a big deal, but it is still a hurdle to cross. As any UI/UX expert will tell you, every extra step reduces engagement.
  2. Privacy is reduced. The price you pay for being able to access your messages everywhere, means that they need to be open and in the clear on the server. This is the classic cloud privacy problem. There are technical solutions, but the experience is far from seamless.

The Device Focus

By contrast, WhatsApp and SMS are centred around your mobile device. You are identified by the device you carry.

The basic unit of communication is a device, the phone (or, in actuality, the SIM card on that phone).

Not surprisingly, carriers love this model, since it ties you to a device and a number. That makes it harder to message off anything other than that particular device, and increases the hurdle involved in switching carriers.

The biggest upside is simplicity. You do not need to register on any Web site to use SMS. It just works. WhatsApp leveraged that exact same setup to get such rapid user adoption. You don't need to sign up or share anything; it just works. WhatsApp took a model people knew and understood - phone-to-phone SMS - and made it cheaper, especially internationally, more powerful and more feature-rich. They converted an existing market (a.k.a. they stole the carriers' market share).

The other upside is privacy. If the service provider wishes (the carriers do not, but WhatsApp does), it is easy to have the traffic between the two endpoints be entirely encrypted to the point that the service provider - carrier or WhatsApp - cannot see the traffic.

The downside, of course, is that you cannot transition easily from device to device, temporarily or permanently.

Can the Two Co-Exist?

Facebook Messenger and iMessage exist to enable communications between 2 people independent of their devices.

WhatsApp and SMS exist to enable communication between 2 devices.

Now, an Account Principle company has acquired a Device Focus company. Can the two co-exist, or are they fundamentally opposed?

Apple has done a decent job integrating Device Focus into Account Principle with iMessage, but it is far from perfect and has gone through many painful iterations. It still is built around the Account Principle, which has all of its upsides and downsides.

Facebook also is an Account Principle company. Integrating a Device Focus company's services into it without driving away its users and adoption rate will be an interesting challenge.