WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton: ‘Social is not in our vocabulary’

WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton told IndianExpress.com: “What we have started doing is sort of create the foundations of how businesses will engage with consumers”

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | New Delhi | Updated: February 25, 2017 9:12:38 am
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If you thought WhatsApp will add so many new features that it will morph into a social network of its own, then here is the final answer. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton says “social was never a part of their vocabulary”.

“We think of ourselves as a communication service with the focus on communication and utility on conversation, not necessarily the social constructs. We are not a product that you want to put games or dating into,” says Acton who founded WhatsApp exactly eight years ago with Yahoo colleague Jan Koum. “We want people to have conversations with people who are meaningful to them, that’s probably their friends and family, batchmates and maybe some businesses like their grocer or tailor.”

He underlines that through the course of WhatsApp’s history they have thought of building “a private, secure, safe communication service”.

However, there is no denying the fact that WhatsApp is clearly seeing an opportunity in connecting its millions of users with enterprises. “What we have started doing is sort of create the foundations of how businesses will engage with consumers,” WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton told IndianExpress.com.

Acton said the effort will be to ensure that this foray is done “in a way that is clean, straightforward, simple and spam-free communication”. “People engaging with businesses for transactions and customer support is positive. For enterprises it might be APIs, for small scale business it might be a mobile client. We are really in that exploratory stage,” he said.

In a WhatsApp green T-shirt, Acton does not look like someone who recently sold the company he co-founded for $19 billion. But that doesn’t mean he has no business plan. Asked how WhatsApp plans to monetise, Acton said: “The business model is probably the million dollar question, how all this will manifest in terms of dollars and revenue. We are actively ideating on that. We are thinking of how we can build this business in such a way that we can preserve the utility and simplicity of our product.”

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India is WhatsApp’s largest market with over 200 million users. “India is critically important, it is our leading market. India guides us with respect to what we build and how we build it,” he says, minutes after a meeting with Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Acton thinks the numbers in India is an opportunity for them in California to connect with people on the other side of the world and understand the diversity, languages and networks. “Just learning India, understanding India has been a pure enjoyment for us.”

In fact, there are valuable learnings too. Acton highlights that as a company they have grown to understand the needs for data and battery conservation because of learnings from India. “People are on very low-end phones, people are on slow and poor networks. What we try to achieve is a very simple, fast and reliable experience in the Indian environment,” says Acton who worked with Yahoo, Apple and Adobe setting up WhatsApp.

He says the learnings from India “parleys to similar markets like Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, which might not be as large”. “These feed into and help us build a strong, fast and reliable global network.”

Read: WhatsApp’s new Status feature is now live for all: Here’s how to use

Acton has two perspectives to offer when it comes to the content that is floating around on his platform. “We are an end-to-end encrypted service and have limited capability to understand the content that flows through our system. That does not take away our responsibilities to help users get the empowerment to report or block content,” he says, adding that they will create those tools and get out of the way. “We want to make sure users are in control.”

Incidentally, just today the latest update of WhatsApp, a rich status feature that revives its original concept, has been rolled out in globally.

So will there be space for so many messengers, especially in different markets? “Classic economics sort of dictates that there will be consolidation towards three players. I think of the world in two ways — ID-based messengers likes Skype or Messenger and phone number based messengers like Line or WeChat. If I was to make a prediction, maybe there would be three each in both categories that survive, but that does not mean there will be no disruption.”

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