Why WhatsApp is taking an all-too-familiar approach to third-party client apps

Shane Schick

Even though it is now officially owned by Facebook, the recent actions of WhatsApp toward developers might best be described as "pulling a Twitter."

There was a minor furor recently when a story began circulating that the popular messaging app was banning users "for life" if they were using a third-party client--which includes OgWhatsapp, WhatsApp Reborn or WhatsApp+--to access its services. This has since been clarified by Techcrunch as less a case of kicking out users forever than a temporary exile, with screenshots showing the date and time they'll be allowed back on again.

App developers must be getting used to this by now. When it first became popular, Twitter started cracking down on many of the alternate (and in some cases better, as far as I'm concerned) clients for its social media stream. Executives later explained they felt they were losing control over the user experience of its growing installed base.

WhatsApp isn't in quite the same situation, and told TechCrunch it wants to avoid potential privacy and security issues such as the leak of Snapchat data via a third-party app late last year. Of course, that's laudable, given the increased scrutiny over the way app data is collected, managed and stored. However, there's a difference between pulling back access to SDKs and APIs and threatening your own users. Perhaps Twitter didn't feel it was big enough to do more than simply rile app developers. 

This has been an instance where WhatsApp seems far removed from its corporate parent Facebook, which has been spending much of its time reaching out to app developers with a growing range of tools. Yet I would wager that many of the developers eager to create apps and games for Facebook's platform would be equally eager to work with WhatsApp. If the two services ever start to look and feel more like one, it will be interesting to see how this is reflected in its policies. 

There also tends to be a circular journey that these kinds of debates take. Just last year, Twitter seemed to turn over a new leaf and is now actively reaching out to developers again with its Twitter Fabric offering. Perhaps WhatsApp will eventually follow suit, or purchase one of the most popular third-party clients the way Twitter eventually bought TweetDeck. In the meantime, even with all the myriad mobile malware and hacker attacks, it may be difficult for WhatsApp to dress up this policy as something that's in the user's best interests. In many quarters, it will just look like another attempt to stifle innovation. And as Twitter learned the hard way, it doesn't take long for app developers to get the message.--Shane