Facebook's WhatsApp to offer voice calling in Q2

BARCELONA, Spain--WhatsApp plans to introduce voice calling services sometime in the second quarter, the company's CEO announced here during a keynote appearance at the Mobile World Congress trade show. The announcement is notable coming just a week after social networking giant Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) announced it will acquire WhatsApp in a $16 billion deal.

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum said the company hopes to roll out its new voice-calling service first to Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and then later to Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone and some BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) phones. He didn't provide many details on the service or a more specific launch date.

"We think we will have the best voice calling product out there," Koum said, adding that the company will ensure the service transmits high-quality calls.

Koum said WhatsApp would work to ensure that its voice calling service would be cheap and easy to use, though he declined to provide specifics. Also unclear is exactly how the WhatsApp voice calling service will work: whether WhatsApp users will only be able to call each other or whether they will be able to place calls to standard mobile phone numbers or standard landline numbers.

WhatsApp is by no means the first over-the-top messaging provider to expand into voice calling. Kakao, Line 2, Vonage, Skype and others all offer IP-based voice calling. Indeed, Facebook itself last year added a voice-calling function to its service, first via its Messenger app and then into its primary Facebook app.

Koum also offered a glimpse into WhatsApp's past, present and future. He said the company was founded exactly five years ago, on Feb. 24, 2009, in California, at a time when it did not have any users, revenues or even a commercial product. He also acknowledged that the company's first WhatsApp prototype "sucked."

Today, however, WhatsApp's situation is much, much different--and Koum acknowledged that WhatsApp "couldn't be more humbled by this growth." WhatsApp today counts 465 million monthly active users and 330 million daily active users.

As WhatsApp heads into its voice-calling future, Koum confirmed that the company plans to retain its simple and "uncluttered" approach to its user interface and customer service.

Koum also reiterated that WhatsApp would "remain independent" from Facebook and would continue to take a hands-off approach to its users' data. "We as a company and a product want to know as little as possible about our users," Koum said--a notable statement considering Facebook's service relies on selling user data to advertisers.

Koum also said WhatsApp would continue to operate as a startup, explaining that the 55-person company would expand its workforce only when necessary.

Interestingly, Koum said WhatsApp is gearing up to form partnerships with wireless carriers. He said specifically that WhatsApp plans to begin offering a special WhatsApp rate plan and service via a partnership with wireless carrier Eplus in Germany.

WhatsApp isn't the only OTT company hoping to form partnerships with wireless carriers. During the same keynote event, Sirgoo Lee, the CEO of OTT messaging and calling service Kakao, said that the company is working to form partnerships with carriers in its home market of South Korea to offer Kakao-specific pricing and services. Lee also said Kakao, which counts 130 million users and offers content including games, books, movies and music, plans to expand into mobile banking and financial services at some point in the future, as a way to make its application more useful to users.

The keynote event was themed as presentations from "disruptors," and wireless operator executives on the panel--Hans Holger-Albrecht from Millicom and Mats Granryd from Tele2--each described themselves as disruptors too. Holger-Albrecht explained that Millicom is expanding into the cable, entertainment and banking sectors with a plan to double its current $5.2 billion in annual revenues in five years. Meantime, Tele2's Granryd said that the carrier hopes to retain its positioning as a disruptor by maintaining its "born to be cheap" tagline. To do so, he said the company will continue offering unlimited texting and calling and buckets of data--which he said 50 percent of the carrier's customers now subscribe to--and will reduce costs through network-sharing initiatives and other activities.

For more:
- see this Guardian article
- see this Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.)

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Analysts: Facebook's WhatsApp deal won't sting U.S. carriers, but may affect those in emerging markets
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