WhatsApp Voice: a nice add-on for 700 mln users

Wednesday 18 March 2015 | 13:15 CET | Market Commentary


Recent reports have suggested WhatsApp has started testing the new service WhatsApp Voice with a selected group of users. A launch was expected in Q1, but it's not yet clear whether the commercial start of the service will occur before the end of March. 

Will voice be a successful feature for WhatsApp? What will be the impact on the market? Will traditional operators sell fewer minutes or see pressure on prices? For the moment, it appears the impact on the market will be small, but voice should prove a worthwhile add-on for the around 700 million WhatsApp users.

Plus and minus points

WhatsApp Voice will be a free service for calls between WhatsApp users, most likely with the same good user interface as WhatsApp messaging. The voice service will prove especially useful in countries with high telephony prices. 

At the same time, the service is not all positive. First, the quality of OTT voice is still well below that of managed voice services. Second, why would WhatsApp Voice have a significant impact, when providers such as Skype and Viber remain marginal after years of offering the same service (admittedly Skype is a significant player on the international calls market). Third, WhatsApp Voice doesn't work if there's no data network available. Fourth, there are still countries where WhatsApp has little following. 

We also don't expect operators to stand still; many are already offering unlimited call plans, some even to other countries (eg Free in France). Furthermore, voice is far from the most important feature of a smartphone. Most people only call a few minutes per day on average.

There is a parallel with linear TV being offered by an OTT provider such as Apple. Again, this is an OTT service competing with a traditional service that has already been under pressure for some time and is showing little to no growth. It's also not an expensive service (in Europe at least). TV providers are rising to the challenge with TV Everywhere, and voice operators are launching unlimited calls for a flat monthly fee. For OTT providers, the growth is coming from elsewhere: streaming video on the entertainment market and video calls and social networking on the communications market.

Installed base

In the end, the impact will be limited. WhatsApp (a subsidiary of Facebook) does have one big advantage though: an installed base of 700 million users. They have the app already and don't need to download anything new. No credit is needed either, as the voice service (to start with at least) will not allow calls to fixed and mobile numbers not on WhatsApp. In the end, the voice service is merely a nice add-on for WhatsApp users. Whether, and how much, it will be used, remains to be seen. 

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