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WhatsApp & the transition of social networking to mobile
Jabulani Chirinda, Technology Zimbabwe
May 15, 2012
View this article on the Technology Zimbabwe website
the last few weeks there has been a lot talking on social networking,
its related technologies and its adoption by users worldwide. Facebook,
Google+, Twitter and other similar services are being treated by
some of us as true social networking platforms. Some of our colleagues
have gone on to separate such services as WhatsApp, ChatOn and other
similar services as just Instant messaging or Multimedia Messaging
Services. But that is what Facebook, Twitter and all the others
do too. Of course these add other layers to provide more integrated
and seamless user experience.
With all the technological
changes occurring at neck-breaking speeds, it has not been very
easy to comprehend where exactly we are heading to. Smartphones
are getting smarter, smaller and very powerful in computing. Samsung
just recently showcased their latest flagship Galaxy phone S3 which
has raised the bar in the definition of a smartphone. Today's
smartphones possess processing power comparable to laptops of three
to four years back. Powerful productivity and social applications
can now be packed into these gadgets making them some of the most
highly sought after consumer products.
Back in the days of the
dot com boom, it was so fashionable to talk Internet and email.
A lot of people visited internet cafes just to open an email account.
Back then, an email address was synonymous with being streetwise
and upmarket. The email was perhaps the beginning of the modern
social networking as we know it from Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
Those privileged enough to have email address and access to wired
computers would forward jokes, power-points, animated images and
sometimes videos. Some firms even put strict rules on what employees
could do and not do online. Yahoo back then was the king of "social
networking" or emailing. A number of our friends had email
addresses with a UK domain because Yahoo was offering emails on
that domain only. Of course this later changed as more competitive
players like Google and Microsoft joined the party.
Facebook arrived on the
scene in 2006 while other big players were massively investing in
email systems and other cloud services. Gmail then was the "new-kid-on-the-block".
Most people were leaving either Yahoo or Hotmail for Gmail. As much
as Gmail was innovative in adding new features to online email services,
it still remained an email service doing the same tasks performed
by its rivals. In other words if Yahoo Mail and Hotmail were scotch-carts
then Gmail was just a bigger scotch-cart being pulled by several
Facebook offered such
a radically different social networking service that it was misconstrued
for a site that stole private information to post it to the public
on the web. As Facebook added more features, observed and complied
with privacy regulations it gained ground as a new platform for
socialising online. In Zimbabwe, Facebook became something of a
phenomenon just after dollarisation of the economy when the internet
became more accessible. People would meet at social gatherings and
later become friends on Facebook. The word "Facebook"
started appearing as an everyday "street" word. It appeared
in product adverts, in newspapers and even in courts as a reference
source for relevant information.
To this day, Facebook
is by far the most popular internet service among the youth in Zimbabwe.
It is the versatile social tool every youth can't afford not
to have. Facebook like all web services has extended to the mobile.
In other words Facebook was built for the desktop during the desktop
web era and is now gradually streamlining its identity as a mobile
web firm as seen from its current developments.
Enter the year 2010,
a new start-up called WhatsApp comes up with a tiny mobile application
that runs smoothly on smartphones and would later be extended to
Nokia feature phones. As an instant messaging application, WhatsApp
appears harmless to the web giants. It's pretty simple to
get what it does; basically 'free' SMS.
But the adoption of WhatsApp
particularly in developing nations has been astounding. Carrier
operators who rely on SMS as a revenue channel are being made to
think twice. WhatsApp on the surface is an instant messaging application
but it integrates some bare-bone features such as multimedia messaging
and ability to message in groups. And more importantly, in addition
to WhatsApp being built from ground up for mobile, it has very basic
features found in both Facebook and Google+ either as products or
What is very interesting
at the moment is the rate at which this new messaging application
is growing and in the process defining a new form of social networking,
one based on instant messaging. Yes, instant messaging, whether
in text, audio or video form is social networking.
Now Facebook, a service
whose foundation is the desktop, must reconfigure not only its mobile
strategy but even its mobile product to remain in the hearts of
users. Mobile is basically a one-on-one experience as modelled by
WhatsApp. Facebook does offer one-on-one instant messaging just
like WhatsApp, but it is the baggage of Facebook desktop features
that is ruining the mobile experience. Facebook may even struggle
to get the basic user interface right for its mobile client as internal
company philosophies will heavily influence how Facebook intends
to play the new "instant messaging" social networking.
The firm will need some serious redesign to transition to mobile
with the same impact it has had on the desktop.
The social networking
giant is going IPO in a few days from now and it has just revealed
the financial challenges that it is facing as users migrate from
desktop to mobile. This of course is in reference to lost advertising
revenue. However the real discussion is not so much about the revenue,
it is about the relevance to users in the mobile space. The Facebook
social networking model was best suited for the desktop era, it
remains to be seen how the firm will adjust to this. The mobile
space is highly notorious for its dynamism, it's been known
to catapult start-ups from nowhere and place them right at the centre
of the universe and the converse is sadly also true.
The story is that instant
messaging is already morphing into the mobile social networking
and those with the right tools are reaping the benefits. WhatsApp
is on a roller coaster to become what Facebook became half a decade
ago. Sadly, WhatsApp could be on the helm for just a few years assuming
an exponential decay in their influence. It would seem technology
is what you imagine, therefore new cutting edge technology is just
a dream away!
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