Messaging Service WhatsApp To Extend Subscription Model To iOS This Year, But Don’t Hold Your Breath For A Desktop App

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WhatsApp, the popular mobile messaging app that eschews advertising in favor of a paid model, is getting ready to bring its iOS app in line with the apps it makes for other platforms by turning it into an annual subscription service. Jan Koum, WhatsApp’s CEO, says that the company is planning this year to shift its iOS app to one where new users would pay annually to keep using, taking it away from a one-off download fee and bringing it in line with how it is distributed on the Android, BlackBerry, Nokia and Windows Phone platforms.

The comments were made to Dutch journalist Alexander Klopping, and reproduced in part in two Dutch blogs, Tweakers and Techtastic. Klopping also provided us with recording of the interview, in English.

The new subscription model would apply to new users, Koum said, and would likely follow the same pricing structure as its other apps, which are free for the first year and then cost $1/year, compared to the single, for-life $0.99 purchase that users make on iOS today. “We’re relaxed on dates, but definitely this year. It’s on the road map,” Koum said.

There are signs that WhatsApp is already making the necessary tweaks to implement the change. On an area of the site where users can contribute translations for future WhatsApp services, a commenter below points out it’s already crowdsourced four ways of saying “purchase now” to renew a subscription on an iPhone.

Koum did not spell out too much of the logic behind why WhatsApp is changing its model — “We want to keep things simple,” he explained.

On the competitive landscape, WhatsApp is currently one of the most popular messaging apps around, with 17 billion messages transmitted daily (7 billion inbound and 10 billion outbound), with over 100 million users on Android alone. But it is also facing challenges from the likes of messaging apps like Line, which in January passed 100 million users across multiple platforms. Line is free to download and it makes its revenues through in-app purchases for stickers and virtual currency for games and other content, alongside other services like messaging and free voice calls, part of a strategy of presenting itself as a social entertainment platform. Making WhatsApp free for the first year doesn’t match that feature set, but it at least better matches what Line (and others) offer to App Store browsers looking for messaging apps. And of course free downloads are what drive many of the most popular apps today.

Some other noteworthy details from Koum’s short interview:

– He says that WhatsApp is not likely to be making a desktop version of its service any time soon. “We get that question asked a lot,” Koum said of desktop apps. “We feel strongly that the world is moving to mobile and [so] we want to be mobile-only. Your phone is with you all the time, and desktop is to many becoming a secondary experience. [So] our answer is no, not anytime soon.”

– Similarly, adding live streaming video to WhatsApp is “definitely not this year,” said Koum. (Also on the list of feature speculation is gaming. A report over the weekend claimed that WhatsApp was making a move into gaming on its platform, per a deal with gaming company WeMade, although later the original source for that report was pulled citing wrong information.)

– No comment on acquisition rumors but a wider statement on exit strategies in general. “We don’t discuss exit strategies internally,” Koum said. “A lot of companies in Silicon Valley talk about exit strategies. The way we look at it, is it’s like entering a marriage and talking about divorce. We just don’t have one. We don’t have one because we don’t plan or want to think about it. We want to focus on good products.”

– On cannibalizing carrier revenues. “We actually have really good relationships with a lot of carriers. We’re doing some revolutionary stuff. The world is switching to data [and we have] some good partnerships, for example with Three in Hong Kong.” That partnership gives Three subscribers access to WhatsApp when they travel internationally for the equivalent of about $6/day. “We understand that a lot of people are switching to our product instead of SMS but we look at it as evolution.”