Update: WhatsApp is now serving a whopping 300 million monthly active users. The service has finally woken up to the opportunities it could be missing out on and has added a push-to-talk feature on its applications. Foe the whole story click here.
Let me be completely honest here. I prefer chatting to talking over the phone. There is something inanely comfortable about being able to think your replies out, add funny emoticons to your conversation and generally be able to multitask while conversing. And aiding my love for chatting as a mode of connecting with my friends are cross-platform messaging apps that run on your data plan and let you keep chatting for no extra charge. The cross-platform messaging platform is undergoing a pretty little boom period now with players like Nimbuzz, Kik and Viber amongst many, many others claiming small chunks of the market with specific features catering to their respective niches.
Exchanging stickers and voice messages are kind of fun
However, the one app that seems to have been catapulted into the spotlight in quite a massive way in India has been WeChat. I say “seems” because despite the app perching itself coolly on top of charts on both iOS and Android, you will almost never find more than a handful of your friends using the service at any given point of time. However, with a lot of money being pumped into a huge marketing campaign that spreads across print and television in the country, it looks like this app by China’s Tencent is here in India to stay.
We decided to pit the seemingly multi-faceted WeChat against the dependable, big daddy of cross-platform messaging – WhatsApp. To most it will seem like a lost cause to pit a seemingly new app like WeChat against WhatsApp. However, those also happen to be the same guys who scoffed at Facebook on Orkut communities back in 2007 while playing fraandship-fraandship over what was lovingly described as “Scraps”.
There is no denying that WhatsApp is a giant in its own right. The service, after all, is currently catering to more monthly active users than Twitter’s user base. Yes, I’m not making this up; WhatsApp’s MAU is north of 250 million users and it processes about 18 billion inbound and 12 billion outbound messages everyday. While we do not have exact figures of how many users WeChat serves, official figures on Google Play Store says that the app has been downloaded between 10,000,000-50,000,000 times and has received a rating of 4.5 on the store. On iOS too, the app is rated at 4.
Dat simple interface!
Nitty-grittys out of the way, if there's one area where WeChat cannot touch WhatsApp in, it's the interface. While WhatsApp’s UI – especially on Android – is as sharp as a hot knife slicing through butter, WeChat’s effort looks as jarring as your neighbouring aunty doing an item number at the society’s Ganpati Pandal.
It might be ages before you actually manage to get used to WeChat’s very confusing interface if you decide to use it. There’s the main page from where you can access your chats, a contacts page where you can handle your connections and a social page that has four more options.
WhatsApp, on the other hand, follows the app equivalent of the wham-bam-thank you ma’am principle. With a relatively neater interface on Android, WhatsApp has the edge when it comes to looking pleasing to the eyes. Moreover, it is far, far ahead of WeChat. It’s time WeChat too releases a Holo version of its app on Android. The stalker-friendly “Last seen at” and the tell-tale double-ticks indicating that a message sent/received are features that WeChat could do well to lift from the more experienced WhatsApp. While the well-circulated joke says that the “Last seen at feature” has been behind many a break-up, it’s a very important feature for most power cross-platform messaging users, as is the double tick system.
Settings confuse, Drifts amuse
What really ails WeChat is that it’s spread itself too thin. The app wants to offer a little something to everyone and so has video chat, audio messaging, social, profiles, stickers, emoticons etc; thereby essentially turning the service into a mixed bag of nothing. The service and its features are too elaborate for its own good. Right from the moment you decide to sign up for the service, you’re made to go through a slightly longish process of choosing a new username, connect it to your social networking profiles and have WeChat provide you with a whole new one called “Moments”. All WhatsApp needs is your mobile number and access to your contacts list.
Then again, like a famous advertisement goes, “Itne paise mein itna-eech milega". WhatsApp’s limited features cannot hold a candle to WeChat’s elaborateness. The latter’s capabilities begin where WhatsApp’s end. Texting each other is a passé, is what WeChat believes. It allows you to send across voice messages, hold video chats, converse using the walkie-talkie mode and even like and comment on photos. Besides being a cross-platform messaging app, WeChat moonlights as a mini social networking ecosystem. WhatsApp, on the other hand, lets you message friends.
Additionally, WeChat also has a brilliant web mode for accessing your chats and transferring files through the browser. I sincerely wish WhatsApp would consider incorporating this feature, making life easier for people like me who have to shift focus between phone and PC.
Pleasing to the eyes
For all the flak it gets for having a very confusing interface that looks extremely cluttered, WeChat has some great features too. Its social tools go largely unnoticed, and frankly, it is the service’s fault for not putting the spotlight over it. For one, there is the “Shake” feature that, based on your location, connects you to people around you or even across the globe. All you need to do is activate the feature and shake the phone. Now, we don’t know if shaking to get rid of your loneliness is a euphemism for something, but this feature could help you make new friends. Of course, you’ll have to rummage through a swamp of fraandshippers, unless that happens to be your thing. The “Look Around” feature overlaps a little with Shake and shows people using WeChat around you. The “Drift Bottle” is a fun concept of picking up floating message bottles in the proverbial WeChat sea and choosing to reply to them. WhatsApp, on the other hand, lets you message friends.
If you’re on the receiving end of fraandshippers, you will need to tinker around with security settings in a big way. You can control pretty much every aspect of the service, choose who can see you, opt between letting strangers contact you and even turn-off certain annoying features. WhatsApp, on the other hand … well, you get the drift.
The bottom-line here is that while WhatsApp is currently leading this race, it’s in danger of becoming the hare that fell asleep near the finish-line. If it finds solace in piggy-backing on the status quo and refuses to evolve, WeChat just might turn into the proverbial tortoise that won the race. Even so, assuming none of my friends are currently on either of the apps, I would ask them to contact me over WhatsApp for the sheer simplicity and ease with which you can use it. And even while it looks like WeChat could end up stealing a huge chunk of WhatsApp’s users over a period of time, it’s features are far too many to be able to hold the attention of people who simply want to contact their friends and loved ones.
(Cover image credit: Church Planting)