I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of the web and the impact that mobile devices had on its development. Although we had amazing innovations on the way we browse, search, consume content, find locations and share content, there is one area that can still benefit from innovation, opportunities and technical improvements — and that is messaging apps.
Don’t get me wrong, I know we had significant advancements in the way we communicate via text, audio and more importantly video over the years. However, there is one huge leader in this space that we really need to talk about: WhatsApp.
WhatApp currently has 1.2 billion monthly active users across the globe, and it is the preferred messaging app in many many countries (basically, if you have a friend outside the US, you most likely communicate via WhatsApp).
The app had quite an impressive journey that culminated with an acquisition by Facebook, in 2014, for an astonishing price tag of $19 Billion (yes, with a “B”).
At the same time, almost 3 years later, the app still has some major issues that nobody seems to talk about. Therefore, in this post, I’ll list 10 major issues with WhatsApp.
1. It requires your phone number
This is probably my main complaint about WhatsApp, and it connects with other items in this list. The app started as an alternative for SMS and because of this underling technical legacy, it still requires your phone number as your username to register. There are no other available options to sign up. No email, no Facebook Connect, nothing.
Moreover, after you start the process, you need to validate your account with a code that is only sent to your phone number (a common practice today in other apps that is actually quite problematic).
This device dependency means that WhatsApp has to be always tethered to your phone, making other solutions to access your account and conversations very cumbersome (QR code, I see you).
For instance, even thought WhatsApp now offers web apps and desktop apps for multiple platforms, if your phone runs out of battery, you are done! All your messages and conversations are stored solely on your device and you won’t be able to access anything until you can charge your phone.
This is an issue that is almost exclusive to WhatsApp. Other platforms (including Facebook Messenger) will let you access your content from multiple devices freely, because there is no direct tie between the service and your phone number.
Oh! I forgot… Are you still lusting for that WhatsApp app on your iPad? You are out of luck. You’ll have to carry a tablet and your charged phone all the time, and use a browser instead to connect via WhatsApp web.
2. Switching devices while traveling can be very messy
Because of this inherited dependency on a phone number, WhatsApp can make your life very difficult if you are traveling abroad, and planning on buying that shiny new phone you always wanted.
I’m originally from Brazil, and over the years I had to deal with many issues with friends and family members that travel to the US or Europe, buy a new iPhone or Android device and can’t really start using it until they solve this problem.
They usually heavily rely in WhatsApp to communicate, but they can’t really activate it in the new shiny object, because their carrier is not configured to work overseas and therefore, will not receive that unique activation code required to sign up in the new device. I have watched this situation closely, and it is a very frustrating experience.
Furthermore, in the past, WhatsApp had a horrible method to switch phone numbers. This is something that has been fixed a few years ago (I’ll give them that). But this reliance on phone numbers as usernames still causes several problems to people. It’s not unusual to see people having to warn everybody on their groups and private conversations that they switched phone numbers for whatever reason. Sometimes they can loose that number to another person and suddenly you have a stranger on contacts. Do you see now why usernames are so useful?
3. WhatsApp stores everything on your phone
This is a big one, but I’ll try to make it simple. We have this incredible thing now called the Internet, and it has a powerful infrastructure (some call it cloud computing too, but I hate these marketing terms). Anyway, Facebook stores an immense amount of data on its servers and its known for being very secure and reliable.
Facebook offers rewards for people to find bugs and security breaches and has actually quite an impressive track record in its security efforts.
So my question is, why in the world is WhatsApp still storing all of my data in the device? There’s no real answer for this question, other than an excuse about preserving your privacy (which we all know its not true). Today, there is absolutely no need to consume my device’s storage with text messages, images, audio and video files. Even Apple, that heavily uses privacy as a promotional aspect to its products has announced that iMessage on iOS will store everything on iCloud.
WhatsApp, please stop wasting gigabytes of my phone’s storage and start getting your cloud infrastructure in place. You are already backing up my content to the cloud anyway (and I trust your encryption methods), so don’t tell me your are doing this as a champion for privacy.
4. It duplicates content over and over
This is part of the same problem. The structure for storing content within WhatsApp is pretty much completely broken.
For instance, if I receive a photo from my sister and I want to share it with my mom, WhatsApp will duplicate that asset in its file system and use my storage twice to do the task. You know all those stupid videos you share with multiple groups? Congratulations, every time you share it, you are losing some storage on your phone. This issue has prompted some developers on Android to create apps that remove these duplicates. On iOS, because of the file system and because of this issue within the app, you will most likely constantly be fighting with messages telling you the device or iCloud are out of storage (I feel your pain).
Now, don’t complain when your device tells you it is out of storage in that essential moment, when you needed to take a picture or record a video. Just say, “thank you WhatsApp”.
5. The backup solution on iOS sucks
Ok, I know it’s a lot of ranting about storage with WhatsApp. But if you are an iOS user you probably have been bitten by this one too.
The way WhatsApp stores and restores its backups on iOS is by leveraging the infrastructure from iCloud. The company often says this is a limitation imposed by Apple, but one can also easily make an argument that this is a consequence of WhatsApp deciding to store everything on your phone and not on the their own servers/cloud. Either way, this makes backing up WhatsApp’s conversations a nightmare for a good deal of users.
Again, I have seen this issue many times up close. Several friends and family members that switched devices ultimately (and unfortunately) face issues while transferring their data, and sometimes have to completely start from scratch. It’s not their fault. Its WhatsApp’s fault for not making the process seamless.
This is a combination of its storage and identity issues that makes the entire process a complete mess.
6. Audio and Video calls are very unreliable
A few years ago WhatsApp introduced voice/audio calls, and just last year it enabled video calls too. This was a great idea, because WhatsApp was a strong app that could directly compete with Skype (that was presenting its own issues) and could offer a better service compared with other alternatives such as Hangouts/GChat, Viber, Tango and others.
The only issue is that these two features are totally and completely unreliable. I have yet to experience one phone call with WhatsApp that doesn’t drop or stops working for no reason in the middle of the conversation (even when both ends have good connections). Video calling almost never works in the first attempt, and when it does, the chances of not dropping are very rare as well.
This is a very tricky problem, because its a difficult technical endeavor to overcome, and nobody seems to have a reliable solution yet. But still, when compared with FaceTime, Facebook Messenger and even Google’s Duo, WhatsApp has a lot of work to do in this area.
7. Groups are a pain
Groups, oh groups… I’ll be honest. I don’t know if this is only a problem with WhatsApp or with people in general (most likely its with people). But WhatsApp makes the experience a bit complicated too.
First, I’m suddenly added to a new group. I have no saying in this decision by the way. People just add me and I have no chance to accept or decline the request beforehand. Now, I can always leave the group, but then WhatsApp does me a great favor, and shows everyone in that group that my number (and name for those who have my contact info) has “left the group”.
I don’t know how this is actually perceived by people in other countries, but in Brazil its a huge problem. It is often seen as a rude way of saying – “I don’t want to be a part of this”, or even worse “I don’t like this group of people”. After all this time, why would WhatsApp still do this? Its a social trick that is totally unnecessary and can destroy some friendships, many many times. Just give me an option to accept the request to join the group if I want to. If I decline it, there’s not need to communicate it to anyone. It is super simple.
Now, to avoid this issue I’ve heard friends saying that people choose to mute conversations. But I personally don’t understand that either, because every time you open WhatsApp it still shows you the amount of unread messages from that group… so, if you are added to a group you don’t want to participate, basically there are only two choices – Be an asshole and take the heat for leaving the group in an offensive manner, or stay there forever receiving notifications you never wanted in the first place.
Anyway, this is just one minor issue I have with groups, but I could go on and on for this particular topic… Instead, I’ll ask you about your experiences… and I’m sure you have your own complaints about it too. Care to share?
8. Not recognizing contacts
I know, I’m going to sound very repetitive with this one, but my main point is again to explain how the underling structure of WhatsApp is flawed, and show that people just accept it, instead of questioning it. I’m sorry, but it drives me crazy.
Recently I was added to a group of old friends from school. Now, I’m excited to see who is in the group. But I can’t really tell. All I see is a list of phone numbers with attempts from WhatsApp to identify names, that sometimes are not correct. So now everyone in the group has to ask others to introduce themselves and identify the weird numbers.
What is this? The web in the 60’s with IP addresses!? ICQ with its UIN!? Does WhatsApp know we solved this issue many years ago with usernames? DNS solved it for IP addresses too, in case they are not aware. Is it just me or is it clear we usually don’t care so much about numbers?
Just to rant a little bit more about this concept of phone numbers, WhatsApp almost requires me to know international area codes too. If my friends in Brazil want to talk with me, I can’t just give my phone number, like I do for other people in the US. I have to specifically tell them to add +1, otherwise WhatsApp won’t show my contact to them, and vice versa (I have to add +55 to all of their mobile numbers).
9. Ownership by Facebook
Once upon a time, WhatsApp told us that it was always going to be very respectful of our privacy and would never share your data or rely on ad-based solutions to survive.
But then it was acquired by Facebook and things changed. Last year, WhatsApp updated its Terms of Service and Privacy Policies, introducing a default option to share your information with its parent company, Facebook.
Obviously, there was a huge backlash online, but the app had a safe exit from the debate, because it included an opt-out solution to alleviate the situation.
The bigger problem is that this type of issue will continue to occur, since Facebook desperately needs your data to exist, function and prosper. Plus, there is no way to determine how Facebook will use its ad network to influence WhatsApp in the future.
Facebook will not ignore billions of users that are completely addicted to this app, and will try to sneak in updates and legal jargon to allow for more sharing of your information.
Facebook is a company with huge influence and untrustworthy methods. Therefore, it is sad to see another major app under its umbrella of shaddy practices and worldwide domination.
10. WhatsApp is ultimately just another closed app
When WhatsApp first came out it was a strong alternative to carriers’ fees for SMS, MMS, and to established closed platforms such as Skype, MSN Messenger, AIM and even Facebook itself. So much so, that Zuckerberg ultimately decided to “kill” its potential competition directly.
However, in regards to the way it was built, it quickly became just another player in the bunch. Unfortunately, WhatsApp missed an important opportunity to use its popularity (still as an indie app) to introduce open methods and help contribute to existing web standards, such as XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol).
WhatsApp could’ve been the leader for a bigger movement to adopt open standards in messaging apps. Today, more than ever, we desperately need that movement to happen. This is essential for developers, consumers and companies.
It is insane that consumers need 10 different messaging apps on their phones to communicate with their friends, families, customers and other contacts.
What is even more insane is that developers and companies simply cannot collaborate and build solutions for this problem, because each app literally is developed in its own walled garden, with a different, closed and proprietary protocol, technology and often a different programming language.
WhatsApp could’ve been a beacon of inspiration for other developers and for the industry, and today it would be a major open platform in a global scale. However, because of its broken underling structure, Facebook instead, had to put an immense amount of resources into Messenger to achieve the same results (but still doing everything in a closed environment).
I don’t know if I’m alone on this one, but I’m tired of this battle of messaging apps. It seems we need open standards more than ever in this space. But WhatsApp most likely will not be the hero to save us in this story.