WhatsApp soft-launched its voice call functionality for Android devices in the version of the app released in January this year. The feature is activated when a user who has installed that version (or above) receives a WhatsApp call from someone who already has the feature enabled.
Telecoms, media and technology analyst firm Analysys Mason says the launch increases WhatsApp's ability to compete with rivals, such as LINE, Skype and Viber, which offer voice and video calls.
Stephen Sale, principal analyst Analysys Mason, says that because of WhatsApp’s extensive user base, its voice service could become the primary option for many users.
“WhatsApp has planned to offer voice calling for some time,” Sale says. “The company first enabled audio messages in August 2013, and its CEO announced at MWC in February 2014 that the company would expand into voice calling, mentioning that it would focus on offering a simple service with low bandwidth requirements.”
The release of this feature came one month after WhatsApp enabled access to its standard service through web browsers in January 2015.
WhatsApp's voice service is officially available on Android phones only - iPhones need to be jailbroken to access it, but its presence on iPhones suggests that it will become available soon.
“This approach indicates that WhatsApp has opted for a soft launch, preferring to conduct the launch as a beta testing phase that will enable it to collect feedback before going for a full launch,” Sale says.
“Certainly, our in-house testing suggested an uneven user experience at this stage. The viral approach will also generate hype associated with the exclusivity of having the feature enabled.”
Sale says WhatsApp's expansion into voice calls is a significant event in the communications market. “WhatsApp is probably the last major messaging platform to enable voice calls, but it is also the largest, with 700 million active users as of February 2015,” he says.
“Services such as Skype have historically addressed limited use cases, such as video calling or cheap international calls, and have therefore typically functioned as a secondary voice service.
“However, WhatsApp's high levels of service penetration in many countries (such as Germany and Spain) mean that the service will be viable as a primary voice service for many,” says Sale. “Operator service substitution is more extensive in the messaging market than in voice, and this is likely to continue in the short to medium term.”
However, Sale says the sheer size of WhatsApp's network could disrupt the market and some operators are already adopting a defensive stance. For example, Etisalat has already banned the voice feature in the UAE.
“WhatsApp's voice launch is yet another wake-up call for operators to improve their feature set in communication services,” says Sale.
WhatsApp's new voice calling feature is prominently presented within the user interface – the app is split into three tabs, for calls, chats (messaging) and contacts. Users can place calls to any of their contacts, even if the receiver does not have the latest version of the app.
Calls are automatically presented to the receiver's screen even if the device is not active at that moment, similarly to a regular call. The calling feature is automatically integrated and activated in the receiving user's app after the first call is received. The feature works on both Wi-Fi and cellular networks.