As Snapchat prepares to go public with its hotly anticipated IPO, it already has a formidable foe. Facebook has been launching digital missiles at the image messaging app for years, building a copycat feature into Instagram, stickers and effects in Messenger, and even testing a Direct Share option for photos in Facebook itself. Now Snapchat has yet another Facebook-backed competitor, and it may prove to be the most formidable at all.
WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app, just announced that it is getting into the disappearing message game. WhatsApp is celebrating its eighth birthday by launching a complete revamp of its status feature, which helped catapult it to worldwide popularity. Where previously you could only customize it with clever text expressions, now you can share photos and videos as a status update, complete with funky filters and effects.
Oh, snap: Facebook has been relentless in its attack on Snapchat, but the WhatsApp feature launching just weeks before its IPO might be the boldest move yet. Where Instagram Stories merely brought a copycat feature to an existing social network (and a similar one at that), WhatApp’s status update expands its assault to a whole new battlefield. And with a global reach and more than a billion monthly active users, WhatsApp’s new statuses could take some of the snap out of Snapchat.
The feature, which is rolling out to its Android and iOS apps this week, is simple. Instead of seeing a simple “Available” or “At work” message when your friends check your status, you can now update it with an image or GIF, adorn it with emoji, captions or stickers, and even control who gets to see it. And just like Snapchat, they disappear after 24 hours, though most users probably won’t let them last that long. The idea is that you’ll update it all throughout your day, just like you did before.
If Snapchat isn’t worried, it should be. WhatsApp boasts some 1.2 billion monthly active users, most of whom use the app to chat with their friends daily. It features end-to-end encryption for all messages, including statuses, and the new feature could be the first step toward turning the service into a new kind of secure social network, one that lets you be as public or private as you’d like.
Of course, Snap Inc. will have you believe that it isn’t a social network—it's a camera company. But even with a wide online release of Spectacles, Snapchat is still the engine that makes the camera go. If Snapchat starts declining in popularity, its camera glasses suddenly aren’t so cool anymore. And no one understands this more than Facebook.
Ironically, the biggest threat WhatsApp poses to Snapchat is that it isn’t a social network, it’s a messaging app. Everyone from kids to grandparents use it to communicate, and I’m willing to bet that many of them use it way more than their Facebook account, if they have one at all. Where Snapchat is predicated on photos and general silliness, WhatsApp’s statuses can be as mature as they need to be. It's not targeted at kids or even touted as a main feature (you still need to navigate several menus to find a user's status). Rather, it's a feature that can appeal to millennials and tweens without changing anything about the app's main interface.
And it’s not concerned about turning a profit, at least not yet. WhatsApp is strictly a way to bring users into the Facebook tent, but the status feature could be a step toward monetizing the service. Just like Snapchat has partnered with companies to bring sponsored filters and overlays that insert advertising in a fun, interactive way, WhatsApp could bring movie and product tie-ins to its status options without intruding on users’ privacy or upsetting the experience.
But whatever the next step is, the message is clear: Facebook won’t be content until Snapchat regrets not taking Mark Zuckerberg’s $3 billion buyout offer. And it’s a fight that might be too long and expensive for Snapchat to win.