How Apple Accidentally Helped To Create $19 Billion WhatsApp

iOS

The story of WhatsApp — the messaging app just purchased by Facebook for an insane $19 billion — is pretty fascinating.

Seems that the app’s founders did everything right by doing everything wrong. They flouted Silicon Valley rules like getting press and adding features, and instead focused on making the app do one thing well: send messages. It all sounds very Apple-like, and it’s been well covered in fascinating features from Forbes and Wired that are currently doing the rounds.

One detail in the Forbes piece flew out at me in particular — detailing how Apple accidentally created the core element of WhatsApp by adding a new iOS feature.

In June 2009 WhatsApp’s founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton were ready to give up and throw in the towel. They had been trying to create a status app — kind of like Twitter, but which would automatically broadcast the user’s status to members of their network. They weren’t having a whole lot of luck, however, and a May app launch had gone nowhere.

WhatsApp's developers were stumped, until Apple introduced push notifications with iOS 3

WhatsApp’s developers were stumped, until Apple introduced push notifications with iOS 3

Then Apple added push notifications to iOS 3.0 — allowing apps to ping users with dialogs. At this point, Koum and Acton suddenly realized that what had created was actually a pretty cool (and more or less free) messaging app. They decided to rethink WhatsApp as a full, cross-platform messenger app that would use a phone’s contacts folder as a pre-built social network. Koum was terrible at remembering usernames and passwords, and inspired by Apple’s idea of apps that “just work” realized that WhatsApp could use phone numbers in the place of a login.

As per Parmy Olson’s Forbes article:

Jan updated WhatsApp so that each time you changed your status — “Can’t talk, I’m at the gym” — it would ping everyone in your network. Fishman’s Russian friends started using it to ping each other with jokey custom statuses like, “I woke up late,” or “I’m on my way.”

“At some point it sort of became instant messaging,” says Fishman. “We started using it as ‘Hey how are you?’ And then someone would reply.” Jan watched the changing statuses on a Mac Mini at his town house in Santa Clara, and realized he’d inadvertently created a messaging service. “Being able to reach somebody half way across the world instantly, on a device that is always with you, was powerful,” says Koum.

Before long WhatsApp was getting 10,000 downloads a day. While Apple can’t take credit for it — both Koum and Acton were Yahoo refugees (and ironically were once turned down for jobs at Facebook) — it goes to show how a neat engineering solution like push notifications, combined with apps that “just work,” can spark the creativity of someone looking to do something very different to your standard app.

After all, isn’t that the kind of out-of-the-box creativity Apple has always championed?

  • Carthusia

    It would be nice if Leander could expand on this a bit. For example, how did this app go from pinging everyone in a user’s address book to pinging only selected users in the address book. The former instantiation being Twitter-like and the latter being iMessage-like.

  • Joe Tavormina

    Really, now cult of mac is giving apple credit for whatsapp’s success, why not give blackberry credit for apple’s imessage success. I suppose that now apple will sue facebook because whatsapp looks like imessage and the app’s programmers used out-of-the-box creativity.

    • PMB01

      Terrible troll is terrible.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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