Feature arrives inconspciously; latest version needed to support call making
Potential to disrupt voice market but faces challenges including operator 'blocks'
INSTANT messaging giant WhatsApp Inc has finally made good on its promise to launch a calling feature embedded into its hugely popular app.
The catch though is that it’s only available now on Android devices, with signs of it coming to iOS users in the near future, WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton said at the recent F8 Facebook Inc event. Windows Phone and BlackBerry users would have to wait even longer.
The startup first announced that it would add a calling feature at last year’s Mobile World Congress, shortly after the Menlo Park, California-based Facebook said it would buy WhatsApp for a whopping US$19 billion.
The feature reportedly had been in beta testing mode since February, according to CNET, which that it was then only available to a small number of people. The feature was then expanded to include an invitation-only audience sometime in March.
To begin using this calling feature, users would need to be on the latest WhatsApp software version, which is 2.12.5.
Some portals however report that if users are on 2.12.5, they would need someone who has a later version (2.12.19) to call them before the calling features on their smartphone will be enabled, according to tech blog Android Pit.
Meanwhile Android Police noted that for now, the only way anyone can obtain a copy of version 2.12.19 is to download the APK (Android Application Package) file manually to their smartphone.
Once they’ve done that and installed it, they can open WhatsApp, and its UI (user interface) would have switched over to the new one, with the call functionality enabled.
For those less inclined to muck about in this potential technical minefield and who are still on 2.12.5, try getting someone who has the latest version to call you.
Alternative, users will have to wait for the latest 2.12.19 update to come through the official Google Play store.
Fortunately for me, someone with the latest software called me, and that enabled me to begin testing the feature immediately.
For the most part, the calling feature works well. Call quality was not only clear but had a high-definition (HD) touch to it. If you’ve experienced HD calls on certain cellular networks, you’ll know what I mean.
In one test call to my colleague Keith Liu who is based in Singapore, I experienced this clear quality. The calls were crisp; voices were very well defined with enough treble and a mid-range touch to it.
But I noticed that when I’m speaking to someone via mobile data and not WiFi, the sound quality degraded and isn’t as good as when the call is over faster, fixed-broadband connections.
Also, I managed to switch over from mobile data to my home WiFi connection without having to drop the call.
The one thing I did find quite annoying is that the call has delay and lag, something that has been reported by Tech2 news portal, which frankly speaking isn’t uncommon to most VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) apps, such as Microsoft’s Skype.
But perhaps the more disconcerting experience other than the lag is the echo I hear, which to be fair, did not happen on every call I made. Tech2 also reported that calls were dropped when a WhatsApp text came in while on a call, something I’ve not experienced yet.
The delay and echo seemed inconsistent: When I tried calling someone in Germany, the lag and echo wasn’t present, and the call was superb – despite the fact that I was on a WiFi connection and my friend was on mobile data!
Perhaps what tech blog Engadget believes may be true: That these are only teething problems, which WhatsApp will eventually sort out.
But eventually, what I like to see is that WhatsApp allow group chats via voice, akin to call conferencing. Now that would be very cool and useful.
Soft launch approach
Despite all these positive first impressions, it remains to be seen if the app can truly sustain a proper call, especially while on the move, say in a car or train – the holy grail for VoIP companies such as WhatsApp which are trying to completely replace cellular voice calls.
For now, the app seems to work best while stationary, which means that WhatsApp calls can’t be truly swapped for your cellular voice connection as yet.
Also, for now, the impact of WhatsApp voice will be somewhat limited until a time when the company can get the app to work across all platforms – iOS, Windows and BlackBerry included.
One more thing to note: As with any new service, the quality may still be good as there aren't many people using it as yet. The true test will come when WhatsApp servers are in full swing, loaded with tons of calls.
This strategy to introduce WhatsApp calls incrementally instead of with a loud bang could work to its favour, according to Analysys Mason.
In a research note, London-based research firm said the ‘soft launch’ approach via a beta testing phase will enable it to collect feedback before going for a full launch.
“The viral approach will also generate hype associated with the exclusivity of having the feature enabled, [which could backfire].”
Fellow London-based analyst firm Ovum noted that a key differentiator for WhatsApp has been its continued focus on providing easy-to-use, high-quality communications services.
Acknowledging that while VoIP services are very much dependent on the best-effort nature of the IP network, which is an industry-wide challenge, Ovum believed that this is something that seems to be well understood by users.
“That means it’s likely that users will be more forgiving of WhatsApp calls if there are dropouts or lags, since it’s what they’ve come to expect with other VoIP services,” said Pamela Clark-Dickson, principal analyst at Ovum.
“Of course, WhatsApp will gain plaudits if it is able to provide a superior VoIP experience even where network coverage is patchy,” she added.
Clark-Dickson (pic) noted that given that WhatsApp for messaging has caused a decline in SMS traffic and revenue for a number of operators, it would be fair to assume a similar outcome for operator voice services – especially given that WhatsApp’s user base is well on track to reach 1.1 billion users in 2015, according to Ovum’s OTT Communications Tracker (subscription required).
Analysys Mason said that WhatsApp is probably the last major messaging platform to enable voice calls, but it is also the largest, with 700 million active users as of February 2015.
The firm added that services such as Skype have historically addressed limited use cases, such as video calling or cheap international calls, and have therefore typically functioned as a secondary voice service.
However, WhatsApp’s high levels of service penetration in many countries mean that the service will be viable as a primary voice service for many, it said.
Still the Mountain View, California-based messaging specialist won’t have it easy and still faces challenges going forward, said Ovum.
Even before WhatsApp announced it would add VoIP, competitors in both the telco and over-the-top (OTT) markets had already introduced VoIP services – and more companies did so in 2014 – which means that WhatsApp is entering an already crowded market.
Ovum’s Clark-Dickson said operators also have had more time to prepare their responses, including evolving their communications services and/ or using bundling strategies.
It is also possible that operators in some markets will lobby regulators for the right to block WhatsApp Calls, she argued.
Analysys Mason concurred, adding that the sheer size of WhatsApp’s network could disrupt the market, and some operators are already adopting a defensive stance.
“[Mobile operator] Etisalat has already banned the voice feature in the UAE (United Arab Emirates). WhatsApp's voice launch is yet another wake-up call for operators to improve their feature set in communication services,” it said.
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