Already one of the world’s most popular means of communication, it seems WhatsApp now hopes to compete with services like FaceTime and Skype.
The app has officially launched video calling, and the feature will be rolling out its over one billion users worldwide on iOS, Android and the Windows Phone app over the next few days.
In keeping with WhatsApp’s data security standards, the new video calling feature will be fully encrypted, protecting calls from being listened into.
We’re introducing this feature because we know that sometimes voice and text just aren’t enough,’ the company said.
‘There’s no substitute for watching your grandchild take her first steps, or seeing your daughter’s face while she’s studying abroad.’
The move comes as privacy advocates worry about the potential for stepped-up government surveillance in the US under a Trump administration.
WhatsApp, which boasts more than a billion users worldwide, adopted end-to-end encryption early this year, making it technically impossible for the company or government authorities to read messages or listen to calls.
The new video calling service will provide another means for people to communicate without fear of eavesdropping though WhatsApp does retain other data such as an individual’s list of contacts.
WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum said in an interview that video calls will be rolled out to 180 countries within hours after the feature is introduced at an event in India.
‘We obviously try to be in tune with what our users want,’Mr Koum said at the company’s unmarked Mountain View, California headquarters building.
‘We’re obsessed with making sure that voice and video work well even on low-end phones.’
Mr Koum told Reuters improvements in phone cameras, battery life and bandwidth had made the service viable for a significant proportion of WhatsApp users, even those using inexpensive smartphones.
Apple offers its FaceTime video calls to iPhone users, and Microsoft’s Skype offers video calls on multiple platforms.
But WhatsApp has built a massive installed base of mobile customers and has been steadily adding more features to what began as a simple chat applications.
WhatsApp has operated with some autonomy since Facebook bought it in 2014.
Mr Koum and co-founder Brian Acton, longtime Yahoo engineers who started the company in 2009, now have 200 staff, mostly engineers and customer support, up from 50 when Facebook bought it.
Mr Koum said Facebook has allowed WhatsApp to use its servers and bandwidth around the world for voice and now video.
That support will help spread the souped-up WhatsApp much farther and faster, he said.
But the corporate allegiance also has a price.
After years of pledging it would not share information about users with Facebook, which already has digital dossiers on its own 1.7 billion users, WhatsApp revised its privacy statement in August to say it would do exactly that.
That means Facebook knows whom WhatsApp users contact and their phone numbers.
Some users complained, but Mr Koum said he had not seen a shift in behaviour.
‘In terms of security and privacy, what people care about the most is the privacy of their messages,’ he said.
The video service is well integrated and adds a few twists.
Users can move around the thumbnail video showing what their correspondent sees and flick a video call in progress to the side to minimize it while checking texts or email.