WhatsApp is really more than a messaging app. It’s an entire method of communication, a term roughly on par with “phone call” or “text” or “fax.” (Remember faxes?) More than a billion people use WhatsApp every month, in countries all over the world. And starting today, they all have a new way to chat: WhatsApp is officially rolling out video calling to everyone.
Next time you start a call in WhatsApp, you’ll get a choice: video or voice? Tap video, and it turns on your camera and launches a barebones chat. There are no lenses or filters, no ways to change or do anything. It’s just a call, with your face on one side and someone else’s on the other. It’s much more like Google Duo or FaceTime than, say, the wacky worlds of Snapchat or Hangouts. “We want it to be simple,” says Manpreet Signh, WhatsApp’s lead engineer. “We want to make sure people understand how video calls can be done. That’s been the model for everything we’ve developed at WhatsApp.”
There are a few neat touches in the experience, though. You can multi-task within WhatsApp, checking your other messages while your video call continues in a small box in the corner. Or you can leave the app entirely, which will freeze your camera but continue your call. And you can rotate the camera to any orientation you want, without the screen jumping or refreshing. But mostly WhatsApp’s goal is to have video calls work, for every one of its users no matter their situation.
Over the last few years, especially as the company has developed its voice-calling features, WhatsApp has learned quite a bit about its users’ many devices and networks. “If you look at smartphone users around the world,” Singh says, stating the super-obvious, “their use case is very different from the Bay Area.” Building a product that can work on bad phones or bad connections or both was WhatsApp’s greatest challenge, especially given that video calls require an order of magnitude more bandwidth. The app can control resolution and framerate to keep your call going, and searches for peer-to-peer connections whenever possible to avoid its servers entirely. The whole goal, Singh says, the only metric of success, is to keep calls from failing.
Until now, WhatsApp has mostly replaced existing communication tools. Many of its users started with WhatsApp because they wanted a cheaper alternative to SMS, and switched to voice calls for the same reason. But video chat is a new behavior. Singh believes its time has come: “Mobile networks have gotten much better,” he says, “and there are newer devices which are a lot more capable…People have come to expect to use their camera quite a lot.” Video calling isn’t yet a mainstream activity, but WhatsApp certainly has the clout to make it one. So get out your hairbrush, and maybe put some pants on. You never know who might call.