Around 11PM last night, we got a surprise call from WhatsApps’s Neeraj Arora. It wasn’t any ordinary call but one he made from within WhatsApp. So far we had only heard about the feature, which was promised a year ago and started trickling out to some select users as a part of a beta test. And here we were, talking to Arora, who casually teased us – “I called to check the audio quality. What do you think?”
Last year we had bumped into WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum as both of us headed out of Barcelona after attending MWC. During the interaction, Koum shared with BGR India his vision of how WhatsApp would become the primary communication service after it launches a much asked for voice calling feature. It took a little longer than anticipated but WhatsApp Call is now around the corner.
Also on BGR India: After replacing SMS, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum wants to replace voice calls
Earlier this week word spread about some users being able to access WhatsApp Call feature. WhatsApp had then confirmed to BGR India that it was beta testing the service and would soon launch it once it is satisfied with its performance. Yesterday, the call button started appearing on WhatsApp’s iPhone app, which we are now told is preparation for when WhatsApp flips the switch on. Interestingly, the switches were flipped on for us soon after Arora’s surprise call.
Much like WhatsApp itself, WhatsApp Call is pretty straight forward and simple. Once the service is available for the user, they will see a phone receiver icon next to the contact’s name in a chat window. As part of the new feature, there are a few minor changes to the overall user interface as well. For instance, there’s now a separate pane for keeping track of voice calls. The app also notifies a user when they miss a call. Users can also check their messages and other phone activity while being on the call. In true WhatsApp essence, it is a no nonsense voice calling solution.
To test the durability of the feature, we checked it on both 3G and Edge networks. The calls worked seamlessly on the 3G network with crystal clear audio. In fact, the call quality seemed better than a regular cellular call, and dare we say, almost at par with Apple’s FaceTime Audio call. Even on an Edge network, the feature worked just as fine. This is important, as most users don’t have the luxury to be on a good network at all times.
While there are many messaging apps that offer free peer-to-peer voice calls, including Hike, Viber and Skype, the impact that WhatsApp Call will have is unparalleled. WhatsApp Call has the potential to do to voice calling what WhatsApp messenger did to SMS especially in a country like India where WhatsApp has over 70 million monthly active users. With the right critical mass, simple UI and ability to work in adverse network conditions (not to forget free calls over Wi-Fi), WhatsApp just got more difficult to ignore.