Whether due to pressure from parent Facebook's (FB) - Get Reportleadership, an internal change-of-heart or some combination thereof, WhatsApp is taking on some of the trappings commonly associated with rival mobile messaging apps.
That could put the traditionally no-frills app in position not just to better monetize its billion-plus monthly active users (MAUs), but also gain a stronger following in the U.S., where traditional text messaging (SMS) remains quite popular.
In a move straight out of Snapchat's playbook, WhatsApp recently updated its Android app to give users the ability to edit pictures by drawing on them, superimposing an emoji or writing text. The app is also now able to use the flash on a phone's front camera when taking a picture, and zoom in while recording a video. A similar iOS app update is on the way.
Separately, the beta version of WhatsApp now features the ability to send animated images (GIFs), a feature long sought by many users. The beta app was also recently updated to support emojis, and to let users invite others to group chats via links.
And these moves all come after WhatsApp updated its terms of service to make it possible for businesses to communicate with users. Potential types of communication are said to include "order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing."
WhatsApp also announced it plans to share phone numbers with Facebook to help its parent provide better friend suggestions and "more relevant ads." German regulators haven't been thrilled with that change, and just this week, Spanish regulators also said they would investigate the plan.
Taken in aggregate, the changes mean WhatsApp is starting to look a bit more like competing apps such as Line (LN) - Get Report, Viber, Tencent's (TCEHY) WeChat and Facebook's Messenger, even if it still takes a far more minimalist approach overall. Long pitched as an SMS replacement and simple communications tool, it looks like WhatsApp now wants to be something more.
To some extent, these moves are about protecting WhatsApp's flank as rival continue to take aim. But they also open the door for WhatsApp, which still produces close to no revenue two years after Facebook bought it for about $22 billion, to be monetized in earnest.
Line, which monetizes its apps via ads, games, stickers and e-commerce services, is valued at about $47 per MAU. If WhatsApp was given the same valuation, it might be worth more than $50 billion. This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, since Line's monetization efforts are currently far more advanced, and a larger portion of WhatsApp's base resides in emerging markets whose users are on average less valuable. But the comparison does provide some important context.
The other major benefit to WhatsApp expanding its feature set is that it makes the app more competitive in the lucrative U.S. market, where Facebook still gets close to half its revenue. Here, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and, to an extent, Apple's (AAPL) - Get ReportiMessage, are dominant.
The fact that so many American mobile users get unlimited calling and text messaging with their service plans leads one of WhatsApp's main sales pitches in foreign markets -- it can do away with per-message and per-call fees -- to fall flat. WhatsApp still faces an uphill battle in the U.S., but adding features like photo-editing tools and animated GIFs could help it win more fans, particularly among those familiar with the app due to its use by friends and family living overseas.
For a long time, it felt as if WhatsApp was content to play it safe and stick to the basic formula that let its user base soar to ten digits: Simple, fast, easy-to-use messaging and calling services, and with no frills or gimmicks. Now, the formula is beginning to change, and while that brings with it some risk, there's a clear payoff as well.