Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lowest Common Denominator

This post probably won't say anything that hasn't been said before, but I was thinking about Whatsapp and their success.  A lot of people I talk to here at MIT find the whole thing insane and really don't understand how on earth this could happen.

Most people understand international SMS (and even SMS within some countries) is expensive.  But I've heard so many people ask "Why not Gchat?  Why not Facebook Messenger?  Doesn't almost everyone already have one of those accounts anyway?"

When it comes to group communication, you have to look at the lowest common denominator.  If you have 5 friends who all want to communicate and one of them is on an old Nokia, it doesn't matter if the majority of you have iPhones -- you install Whatsapp because it has an iOS and J2ME client.  It's the only thing that will work across all the phones in your group.  Once you're using it for that, if it doesn't suck, you'll use it for everything else.

Even if 99% of the world were on Facebook, if anyone wanted to talk to that 1%, they would have to use something besides Facebook Messenger.  Or leave them out, of course.  One person I talked to said in the above situation he'd obviously just drop the Nokia user as a friend :).  But for most of us, that's not how small group communication works.

I think this effect, combined with a decent chat experience, is what made Whatsapp grow so fast.  Think about that next time you consider only doing an iOS or Android app.


  1. Very few people actually use Whatsapp on J2ME phones in places like India (where Whatsapp is hugely popular) because that means they'd need to buy a data plan for these phones (which are cheap, but not a trivial amount for people that use these phones).

    I think the biggest draw for Whatsapp in such places is the sign up process - all you need is a phone number (that's your username), and enter a confirmation code you receive by SMS (already behaviors people are used to from other products like SMS banking, etc.) To create a FB or GChat account, you need to enter your info, receive a confirmation e-mail (you need to have an e-mail address too!), click a link - that's a lot of new stuff to do. For first-time smartphone buyers that get the low-end $60 Android phones in India, Whatsapp is simply trivial to set up compared to the other services, especially since the app comes pre-installed on many phones.

  2. Have you thought about the fact that the userid on WhatsApp is your mobile number (rather than an email or other special id)? This allows me to communicate with all the friends I would SMS. I don't need to ask them what their email is - I already have their mobile number.....