WhatsApp & The Developing World

The best thing to come out of Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of messaging service WhatsApp will be an increased interest and incentive to develop applications that cater to the billion plus people who still use dumbphones.

Many writers have popped out theories in the past week about why Facebook paid so much for WhatsApp. One popular theory is that Facebook wanted to tap into WhatsApp’s massive international user base, which would help Facebook dominate the messaging space abroad. Facebook has plenty of international users, but not for the relatively new Facebook Messenger product that launched after FB acquired group chat app Beluga in 2011.

A more compelling theory, detailed in Quartz is that Facebook was aiming for a different, but overlapping demographic: dumbphone users, specifically users of feature phones running Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME).

A post on the Text It blog expounds more on what Facebook’s purchase means for developers of J2ME apps and services that cater to feature phone users. The basic idea is that the market of smartphone users in the developed world is fairly small compared to the billions of feature-phone users in the developing world. If you want to build an app that gets half a billion users, you can’t only build for smartphones.

WhatsApp sits at the intersection of two spaces that Facebook really wants to grow in: international markets, and messaging. The acquisition made sense, and the $19b valuation is high, but not that surprising. It also brings Mark Zuckerberg closer to another goal he has been vocal about recently: providing better internet access in the developing world.

Whether Facebook’s WhatsApp acquisition was purely a grab for users and data, or whether it plays into a more altruistic long term plan to “connect the world,” it seems likely to have the exciting side effect of encouraging more development and innovation catering to the billion-plus residents of developing countries who still use feature phones.