WhatsApp has launched a bold new service that may make some far bigger rivals shiver with nervousness: voice messaging. Starting today, WhatsApp users can record voice snippets and send them to each other in a kind of audio telegram that may be more meaningful than the plain text messages and simple video sharing the app has served up until now.
Simultaneously the app’s makers have revealed that it now has 300 million users worldwide–equating to about one in every 20-ish people on the planet. The new push-to-talk feature will roll out to all mobile app users quickly, and is said to have been a big goal for company cofounder Jan Koum for a long time. It’s free to users, and the idea is that in circumstances where it’s tricky to type, or where language constraints mean speech is swifter than typing, users can instead send a voicemail to their friends.
WhatsApp’s move echoes similar phone market-disrupting attempts by tech giants like Apple. The company’s upcoming iOS 7 software, destined to power hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads, includes a “voice FaceTime” function that allows audio calling in real time using only the phone’s data channel. The move is similar to WhatsApp’s because it allows users to dodge voice calling fees typically levied by phone networks–just as WhatsApp itself, and Apple’s iMessage are attempts to short-cut the usually expensive SMS texting options.
WhatsApp is the subject of continuous rapt attention by the media world because it punches well above the weight of a small 45-employee startup that’s garnered relatively little investment cash.