WhatsApp is trialling a paid-for version of its app
Remember the days when people couldn’t imagine how Facebook – a free service for billions of users – couldn’t possibly ever make a profit? Zuckerberg and co made it work because it turns out that people don’t really care that much about their data. That feels like a short-sighted societal decision with hindsight, but there we are. The point is that Facebook knows how to keep a product free – but it’s wise not to spend too long thinking about how they do it, in the same way you shouldn’t muse on how McDonald’s keeps its chicken nuggets cheap while you’re eating them.
But while Facebook makes money hand over fist, its other business ventures don’t: Instagram has sponsored posts, but it’s not the licence to print money that the main social network is. That leaves Messenger (which Zuckerberg wants to “move a little faster” on) and WhatsApp, which Facebook paid a whopping $22 billion for back in 2014. As Fortune points out, that was more than the value of Sony at the time.
To this day, WhatsApp has made no money – except to support the Facebook mothership. That is finally changing, with the company announcing a dedicated app for enterprise businesses allowing them to chat directly with their users. Called, imaginatively enough, WhatsApp Business, the app was announced in a company blog post on Tuesday.
“We’re building and testing new tools via a free WhatsApp Business app for small companies and an enterprise solution for bigger companies operating at a large scale with a global base of customers, like airlines, ecommerce sites and banks,” the company wrote. Although no price is given, you would assume juxtaposing enterprise with “free for small companies” implies a fee of some kind for the big boys.
How should you feel about this? On one level, it’s quite refreshing for a business model not to target non-commercial users at all. WhatsApp will remain free for the likes of you and me. But on the other hand, if businesses are going to pay for this, then you have to assume that Facebook will make it worth their while in some capacity. If that’s an extra channel of support outside the phone line for it. If it allows companies to message targeted customers with “great offers,” then colour me considerably less enthused.
Still: we can’t have a free lunch forever. Facebook has run out of ways to monetise its users on the main website, so its freeloading children – Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger – have to pay for themselves. If you don’t like the way the wind is blowing, there’s always Telegram – but it’s worth mentioning there’s no such thing as a free lunch in the messaging app space. Plucky British startup Tengi – which offered messaging and free prize draws for its users – shut up shop last year. At least with Facebook’s model, there’s little chance of WhatsApp going belly-up anytime soon.