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Tales In Tech History: WhatsApp

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Popular messaging app celebrates 8th birthday.

WhatsApp has celebrated its eight birthday on 24 February, after the hugely popular freeware messaging app was officially incorporated in California back in 2009.

Indeed it now has a staggering 1.2 billion monthly active users, and WhatsApp users are said to send well over 50 billion messages per day.

But it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing for the app, and the firm has courted a number of controversies in its brief history.

jan koum whatsappPopular App

WhatsApp is perhaps best known as offering an end-to-end encrypted instant messaging application for smartphones. It delivers its communication services across an IP network, so called telco-OTT (Over-The-Top).

WhatsApp uses the Internet to make voice calls, video calls; text messages, images, etc to other users using standard mobile numbers.

As mentioned above, WhatsApp was incorporated on this day back in 2009 by Brian Acton and Jan Koum, both former employees of Yahoo, who once they left Yahoo applied for jobs at Facebook, but were refused.

With the arrival of the Apple iPhone and its app store, both men recognised the business potential of apps to work on the device.

They set about building an app where people would have their statuses next to their names, and they hired a Russian programmer to build the app.

WhatsApp soon became popular as it required no registration, and it was easy to use thanks to its simple interface.

But WhatApp did not have an easy start in life. Early versions were buggy and Koum became disheartened, and was almost about to give up, but Acton persuaded him to stay with it.

The firm officially launched its WhatsApp for the iPhone in November 2009 in the app store, and the Blackberry version was released just two months later.

And despite its humble beginnings, WhatsApp soon became a commercial success, despite the fact that the app carried no advertising and had a strong privacy leaning.

It made its money in a different way. For example it started charging iPhone users on first time installation and the Android users had to pay an annual charge. Despite these charges, the app soon gathered over 250 million users.

WhatApp Controversies

But the real money for Acton and Koum came in early 2014, when Facebook (ironically) acquired the firm for a cool $19 billion (£11.4bn).

That acquisition however was a bumpy affair after two privacy groups officially complained to US regulators about the privacy implications of the acquisition.

At the time WhatsApp founder Jan Koum denied claims the app would have to follow Facebook’s privacy policies.

But maybe those complaints were justified.

WhatsApp was now a Facebook entity, and last year it was warned by European regulators for a potential violation of Europe’s strict data protection rules. They launched an official investigation into the firm.

This was because last August WhatsApp had changed its privacy policy so businesses could send users messages, and also so Facebook could use phone numbers to serve up more relevant ads.

But this clashed with what WhatsApp users expected of the messaging service, and as a result Facebook suspended data sharing between its social network and WhatsApp across the European Union.

And another issue arose last month when WhatsApp was forced to deny a claim by a security researcher at the University of California (Berkeley) that the app had compromised its encryption with a ‘backdoor’ that could allow governments or others to intercept supposedly encrypted messages.

WhatsApp dismissed these claims, but what remains undisputed is the fact that WhatsApp is an increasingly popular messaging app.

Indeed, some believe that it could present a real challenge to Skype.

But that could be some way off, as at the moment WhatsApp is limited to mobile devices, whereas Skype can be installed on almost any device including PCs, tablets, consoles and smartphones.

Quiz: What do you know about Facebook?