WhatsApp users will get to give their fingers a rest in the coming months. The wildly popular SMS app, recently acquired by Facebook, is adding voice to its feature set. In a speech to the Mobile World Congress, CEO Jan Koum said the voice calling feature will be free to users, and roll out to all users in the coming months. Great news for the user base, but another question mark for Facebook’s $19 billion price tag.
Mark Zuckerberg has been forced into defending the price put on WhatsApp, saying that the nearly 500 million users on the service represents a rare opportunity. The CEO of Facebook wants to connect the world to the Internet, and said WhatsApp is a bridge to that goal. The app is adding millions of users per week, and is popular in emerging markets.
While the features are great for the end-user on a cost basis, Wall Street is going to start pushing for answers in the coming quarters on what Facebook plans to do with the application. The promised autonomy sounds great, but monetization to shareholders sounds better. Free VoIP is not going to endear the company to shareholders. Especially when the trajectory is such that it could eclipse Facebook in total users.
The added voice calling places it in the line of fire of Microsoft’s Skype and its 31 million users. Adding voice essentially ends Skype’s stranglehold on the end-to-end family communications. Families that are spread across the world will now have the ability to text and talk for $1.
If the goal of the acquisition was disruption, consider it achieved. Now Facebook has to hold up its end and keep the service autonomous, or derive a unique revenue stream out of WhatsApp.