The world’s leading tech giants look set to battle each other this year for the billions of messaging users around the world. Major updates are planned over the coming months: Apple’s iOS 14, due in the fall, will introduce a number of features that are clearly targeting WhatsApp’s usability; meanwhile, Google is reportedly working to add end-to-end encryption to its RCS messaging, closing the serious current security gap with the other two. But it looks like Google and Apple will struggle to keep pace with Facebook, which seems intent to keep its huge market lead.
Although Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp jointly lead the market, the clear winner for security and sheer usability is WhatsApp. The platform, which made end-to-end encryption available to all and popularized the shift from SMS, is now used by some 2 billion users worldwide. The oddity for owner Facebook, of course, is that its original Messenger app is not far behind, with almost 1.5 billion users of its own.
Facebook started talking of linking its messaging platforms together more than a year ago, but little has happened since. Although there are clearly huge overlaps between the two user bases, WhatsApp is the platform that Facebook knows is best placed to see off the newly charged opposition. And Messenger isn’t even encrypted, which in today’s world is a serious issue. Facebook has confirmed its plans to remedy this, although government pressure has slowed down the process.
Where Google and Apple have an advantage over Facebook is in their integration into the globally ubiquitous SMS messaging, operated by mobile networks around the world. SMS is horribly insecure, but it’s available to everyone, and it ensures that Apple’s iMessage and Google’s Messages can run cross-platform using native apps, whereas Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp need their own apps to be installed.
Now, according to the ever reliable WABetaInfo, new code buried inside Facebook Messenger suggests it is preparing to accept messages from WhatsApp users. This will not introduce the same level of ubiquity as SMS failover, but many of those that still do not use WhatsApp are very likely to have Facebook on at least one of their devices. This would enable those messaging platforms to talk to one another.
The image above shows database fields that Messenger would pull from WhatsApp in accepting incoming messages. As WABetaInfo explains, “following the references in this image, Facebook can understand if a WhatsApp contact is blocked, sounds of push notifications, the details of a chat (that includes particular information like the phone number of the contact, a message counter, if the chat is archived…) but not its content, members of a specific group and profile pictures of the contact.”
There are some serious hurdles for WhatsApp to make this work, first amongst those being encryption. Messenger is not encrypted by default, and so a message running from WhatsApp to Messenger, or vice versa, would have to run within Messenger’s “secret” functionality, expand the use of encryption, or step outside WhatsApp’s end-to-end Signal protocol encryption. Given Facebook has promised to extend encryption across the portfolio, one hopes it will be one of the two secure options.
The under-development database looks like it will be held locally to the user, but there’s always the question as to whether it will also be offloaded to a server somewhere. And, given this is Facebook, will it be used as a marketing data source. It’s likely you will be able to disable the feature—as WABetaInfo points out, “if you don’t trust Facebook and you’ve concerns, this option might be useful for you.”
This move comes hot on the tail of the integration of Facebook’s Messenger Rooms video conferencing, which can be launched and accessed from WhatsApp. You can see the clear pattern emerging. Messaging and video calling are among the stickiest apps around these days, much more so as we have lived through lockdown, and Facebook knows that the monetization of such platforms has only just begun.
If this buried code finds its way onto billions of phones around the world in the coming months, just as WhatsApp’s long-time promise to add multi-device access also comes to pass, this will be a serious challenge for Apple and Google to overcome. While there will be users that do not have access to one of Facebook’s two messaging platforms, they are becoming much fewer and further between.
For WhatsApp users worried about their security, you can likely rest assured that none of the updates we have seen thus far suggest any weakening of this. In fact, the most glaring security hole in WhatsApp, that end-to-end encryption does not extend to cloud backups of chats and media, is one of the other updates in development.
And so for messaging users worldwide, the usability and features of all these platforms looks set to get better and better over the next few months. If only they would all talk to one another—now wouldn’t that be something.