Is WhatsApp stifling the Art of The Possible in India?

During the hubbub of new year wishes, a friend who lives in India, accidentally sent me a message which was intended for his colleague. This message was part of a workflow of his communication with the back-office of his business.

A WhatsApp message (at marker 8:39 AM) between a retail store owner and his warehouse manager. It was accidentally sent to me.

When I talked to my buddy over tales of his new year gala, he gave me a layout of how a business consisting of several retail stores, warehouses, and suppliers uses WhatsApp. I was awestruck. Business workflow stitched over unlimited text messages.

Decades ago, when paper and e-mail ruled the enterprise, many software vendors converted the e-mail and paper trail to client-server architecture and launched several verticals from supply-chain to warehouse management to fulfillment to inventory management to point-of-sale. Later, these workflows included customers in their lifecycle. Many of these verticals are at billion dollar revenue run-rate at large software companies.

In countries such as India, WhatsApp is a necessary fabric of daily communication. This new year alone, 25% of WhatsApp’s 75bn messages were sent by users from India! I can vouch for its audio quality which is high fidelity, and its video calls have re-knitted families that live thousands of miles apart.

WhatsApp by the numbers. c. July 2017.

Its use in India is analogous to early days of e-mail in countries such as the United States, albeit on a proprietary network with a 200+ million user base. You can send everything that is text, a string of images, and videos. However, it does not offer any feature other than a highly dependable, real-time messaging. The best a business could do on WhatsApp is create groups as per functional roles and responsibilities, and communicate.

Thanks to smartphones, a liberal telecom policy, and an abundance of cheap mobile data plans, India has leapfrogged the PC revolution in both consumer and business communication. However, WhatsApp’s popularity and lack of features beyond the basic communication is stifling its users to see a wide range of possibilities.

India’s growing teledensity: 92 wireless connections per 100 people. Source: iSpirt

Now contrast WhatsApp of India with WeChat of China. WeChat, like WhatsApp, started as a messaging service. Now it is a single app that helps orchestrate the digital life of consumers, business, and government. WeChat is not just a messaging platform, but a portal or an operating system depending on how you look at it — a foundational slab in the Maslow’s hierarchy of a digital consumer in China. It is the fabric of commerce, protocol layer of communication, and a glue between citizens and provider of civic services. You can read more about WeChat here, here and here.

WeChat versus WhatsApp: Plenty of whitespace for WhatsApp’s business, commerce, government and civic services features.

WhatsApp needs to up the ante; otherwise, as an early innovator, it is only going to stifle growth in a huge market. Though there are rumors that WhatsApp is hiring people to focus on monetization efforts, it is hard to gauge its seriousness. Brian Acton, WhatsApp co-founder has gone on record stating his distaste for opening up its API, saying, “Sorry developers no API for you.” This is no less of a remark than Henry Ford’s about Model T, “You can have any color as long as it is black.” WhatsApp has sporadically integrated with a few businesses but there is no visible corporate level program, hence, shutting the door and disallowing people who want to communicate with businesses over its widely installed messaging app.

As per an interview, the co-founder’s motivation behind the closeted thought is because of his concerns about spam; if true, it could wreak havoc. However, I disagree with his analysis that APIs lead to spam. In contrast, WhatsApp could use technology and a mix of user-experience, identity management, smart on-boarding, and well-aligned motivations to get a grip on spam.

WhatsApp is a utility, and it has to do what utilities do! Provide a pipe, put out a protocol spec, be a mediator/guide, align incentives and police that everybody plays nice. Here are the top things what WhatsApp can do to remain relevant for years to come:

  1. Enable linkage of real-world identity to a WhatsApp persona. This is a necessary building block for consumption of government and civic services, things that require an individual to be authenticated. I would leave out the how — Whether it is Aadhar or PAN card or Bank account verification.
  2. Open up the Business API. WhatsApp has launched a limited beta of its API to a select merchants. Instead, it should make it a public API program, and do whatever is necessary to prevent abuse. WhatsApp’s B2B potential is ginormous. For PC-era computer literates, Salesforce and early CRM vendors replaced business e-mail workflows and a contact database. WhatsApp could replace a similar workflow for mobile first generation.
  3. Enable app surrogacy. A deep linkage between apps. This would spur innovation around existing apps who would use WhatsApp to complete a B2B/B2C interaction. There are many use cases such as customer service, ride-hailing, to e-commerce.
  4. Enable Payments. Messaging is the backbone of payments in India. WhatsApp could be the conduit where banks, remittance agencies, and mobile wallets can use it as the backbone where users are KYC ready. This would open up a distribution channel for businesses who have been around in their domain, but do not understand the nuances of modern customer acquisition and retention.
  5. Enable celebrities, public figures, and fans to mix. On WhatsApp Deepika P is not just a phone number, but also a celebrity persona. This would drive engagement with businesses, and open up revenue opportunities. Not everybody uses twitter, especially around regional content.
  6. Become a portal. There would be many apps that would live a full lifecycle on their own, but many would want to ride the coattails of WhatsApp. This is the micro-app economy within WhatsApp. This would also give distribution power to small businesses. Millions of Kirana stores would extend their store front and serve their neighborhood. Many Kirana businesses are ingesting shopping lists texted by their customers.
  7. Be the purveyor of trust. Authenticated users enable trust in a system. While Brian has been gung-ho on encryption that ensures communication channel are not compromised, trust brings legitimacy to this communication. Enable consumer, businesses and civic bodies to trust each other by virtue of the band the communicating is being sent upon.
  8. Make storage available in the cloud. Today the sharing mechanism is messaging driven and content is stored locally— have an option for cloud-resident storage (for a fee?). Data not just living on my smartphone, but living in the cloud. You could see a thousand services bloom around entertainment, education, civil discourse, and gaming. Technology architecture-wise, cloud storage is a pre-req for enabling B2B and API.
  9. Fix search, threading, discovery, and contextualization for consumers. This is personal. In the sea of messages my mom receives, she has a hard time searching for her grandson’s Diwali photographs from a few years ago. She does not know the UX of traditional web search. Search, tagging, and categorization requires a lot of improvement.

Though India leapfrogged the PC-era to go mobile-first, consumers in India have yet to see the Art of The Possible on messaging. Not just a tool for sending messages but a destination for shopping, paying school fees and getting answers from the government, without discounting the benefits of a deep and wide social network. The ball is in your court WhatsApp — amp up and monetize. And, keep and eye on Google, its ambitions are not far away.