Has WhatsApp just blown its opportunity to catch-up with iMessage, just as millions consider quitting? And as Facebook versus Apple continues, is iMessage about to become an even more serious threat? Here’s what you need to know.
WhatsApp is playing catch-up with its rivals on security and functionality—especially iMessage. So much so, that if Apple’s stock messenger launched an Android app, it would easily become the best cross-platform option on the market.
WhatsApp versus iMessage has been one of the highlights in the battle between Facebook and Apple. “We increasingly see Apple as one of our biggest competitors,” Mark Zuckerberg has said. “iMessage is a key linchpin of their ecosystem—which is why iMessage is the most used messaging service in the U.S.”
Now, as details on WhatsApp’s biggest ever update continue to leak this week, there is some seriously bad news for its 2 billion users. Far from catapulting WhatsApp ahead of iMessage, the leaked code appears to leave Facebook’s messaging giant far behind—even before Apple’s major iMessage update later this year.
We’ve known for some time that WhatsApp is addressing its biggest feature gap against iMessage (as well as Signal, Telegram, RCS, even Facebook Messenger). Multiple “linked devices” is now reportedly in test. This would allow you to run the same WhatsApp account from your phone, tablet and computer, and you wouldn’t need to keep your phone switched on and connected to make it work.
But iMessage is much more than linked devices, it’s a fully synchronized ecosystem that is fully protected by end-to-end encryption. “iCloud keeps your entire message history updated and available on all of your devices,” Apple explains. “You will always have the same view everywhere you use iMessage. If you have deleted a message, photo or conversation on one device, it will be removed from all of your devices.”
As more details on WhatsApp’s alternative leak, it is becoming clear that it will fall way short. A new report out this week, based on code leaking from the latest WhatsApp beta, appears to confirm that WhatsApp will not match this functionality, that this update is not as “radical” as hoped. There is no full-scale, live and seamless sync.
What this does seem to as regard syncing is a link back to the primary device, aligning pinned chats and starred messages more than content—deletions seem to be excluded. Unlike iMessage, deleting content on one device will not do the same on others, which is a security gap. I have approached WhatsApp for any comments on this update.
Apple’s iMessage architecture also does away with the need for a backup as such. Essentially, you run a live, always-on backup using iCloud to keep all your devices fully in-sync. You can add new endpoints or allow your existing devices to catch-up when connecting. You don’t have the concept of a daily backup.
WhatsApp already has a major issue with backups—they currently fall outside its end-to-end encryption when using Apple’s or Google’s cloud. And while it does appear that WhatsApp is developing an encryption option for such backups, that’s still an archaic concept in the world of messaging as a cloud-based service.
Before you email me to argue differently, let’s acknowledge the serious caveat in Apple’s approach. If a user also enables a generic “iCloud Backup,” then Apple will store a copy of iMessage’s end-to-end encryption key. This undermines everything I’ve just said. So, put simply, disable the generic iCloud backup and you’re fine.
Now let’s turn to account security. WhatsApp has a serious issue verifying new devices. Non-mandatory 2FA and a surge in social engineering hacks to steal SMS one-time codes that activate accounts on a phone. Again, shifting to a trusted family of devices design, as with Apple’s ecosystem, would end this vulnerability. Mandatory 2FA and the idea that a logged-in WhatsApp app is needed to enable another is highly secure.
The best solution to resolve all these major gaps is a fluid sync across multiple end-to-end encrypted endpoints, essentially a live backup to which you can add a new endpoint, using your other trusted logins to avow a new one.
This is iMessage and there’s no reason why WhatsApp could not invest in a similar architecture. Each endpoint would have a decryption key for your chats and groups. If you lose your phone, no drama—your other endpoints remain live, you can simply replace the device and it will sync your message history.
Telegram and Facebook Messenger offer multi-device access but are not fully encrypted by default, with major security and privacy gaps. Google’s beta RCS encryption is heavily restricted. Even Signal doesn’t sync between endpoints, with each new device simply pulling messages only when up and running. There are security advantages to this, but for 99.999% of users, iMessage’s approach is ideal.
These days, with most of your apps and services running their own cloud syncs, you don’t really need a general cloud backup. Even setting up a new iPhone is much better done with a direct device-to-device transfer.
But, all that said, what iMessage doesn’t have are any Android users. The iPhone-maker did consider adding an Android client almost a decade ago, but decided it might compromise some of the iPhone’s stickiness and so backed away.
There is speculation that when Apple’s iOS 15 is released in the fall, “iMessage will become more like a social network so that Apple can compete with WhatsApp.” What that means we’re key to find out. But, fairly obviously, if iMessage doesn’t shock the world and launch an Android app after all, then it can’t compete with WhatsApp on 70% of the world’s smartphone.
“I use an Android,” WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart said recently, “because if you look at WhatsApp’s user base, we are very Android heavy.” But in the U.S., it’s different, where Cathcart acknowledged that “most people have an iPhone, and the messaging experience works better on iMessage if everyone else has an iPhone.”
But iMessage versus WhatsApp isn’t just about the 2 billion, it’s also about the millions in battleground markets, where Facebook’s plans to monetize WhatsApp, to add payments and shopping and hosted business communications, will be shaped.
And with this in mind, there’s still one area where WhatsApp is much, much worse than iMessage and which won’t be addresses with feature updates—privacy. Let’s remember, it was the iMessage versus WhatsApp privacy label comparison that kick-started much of the Facebook backlash with WhatsApp users earlier this year. And despite its PR campaign, nothing has really changed.
Of course, before iOS 15 sees the light of day, there’s the small matter of WhatsApp’s forced change of terms as mandated by Facebook. This is now less than a week away. And despite reports to the contrary, WhatsApp has not backtracked on the stark reality of this update. Users will need to accept the new terms or will lose functionality, eventually having no use of their accounts.
The reminders some users are now seeing will become persistent sometime after May 15, “at that time,” WhatsApp says, “you’ll encounter limited functionality on WhatsApp until you accept the updates. This will not happen to all users at the same time… After a few weeks of limited functionality, you won’t be able to receive incoming calls or notifications and WhatsApp will stop sending messages and calls to your phone.”
And while WhatsApp still says it will not delete these essentially useless accounts, it also points out that users should “keep in mind that separately, our existing policy related to inactive users will apply.” This says that “WhatsApp accounts are generally deleted after 120 days of inactivity [when] the user hasn’t connected to WhatsApp.”
There’s a lot at stake for WhatsApp this year—it has certainly been its worst year as regards PR and fending off attacks from rivals over its Facebook parentage. Quite how the combination of new functionality and a better, more secure architecture will play against the impending doom of tighter Facebook integration, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, if Apple really wants to strike a blow against Facebook and its data harvesting practices, then it should revisit those plans to launch an iMessage app for Android. It’s hard to overstate just how damaging this would be for WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and could, in an instant, disrupt the entire messaging landscape.
Grab your popcorn, the running battle between Facebook and Apple isn’t ending anytime soon.