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Facebook's WhatsApp isn't opening up, much to developers' chagrin

WhatsApp's cofounder claims the company is focused on promising the best experience for users, even to the detriment of interoperability with other services.

Brian Acton of WhatsApp disappointed some in the audience at Facebook's F8 developer conference. Paul Sakuma

What does $19 billion buy you? Sometimes, it's a spot of trouble.

That's what Facebook found out at its F8 developer conference in San Francisco on Wednesday when executives tried to explain to an eager crowd of app developers why it wasn't going to offer a way for them to plug their programs and services into the 700-million-user-strong messaging service WhatsApp.

During a panel discussion with other executives from around Facebook, developers asked WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton whether his service planned to offer tools to interconnect with their programs. Many Web services, including Google, do offer the tools, making it easy for apps to upload and download photos, or perhaps access information like mapping data.

When one developer pleaded for WhatsApp to create these tools to help his app connect with its large user base overseas, attendees clapped in approval. "It's a very careful and difficult thing for me to say here," Acton began. "No, we don't have any plans right now at this time."

The reason, he said, was that WhatsApp doesn't want to inundate users with messages they don't want by allowing outside developers the ability to connect with its service.

"I'm empathetic to your cause, and I receive emails from people on a routine basis that want to either run their business or want to run something using WhatsApp as a backbone of their communication, but we're balancing that with the user experience," he said. "User experience is something we have to hold sacred... we want messages to be wanted, not solicited."

Some developers weren't pleased with his response. Though the talk had not yet finished, attendees began to leave the room after his response.

The exchange highlights the sometimes contentious relationship between companies on the Internet. The culture of Silicon Valley is built in some ways around easy sharing of information from company to company. People who own Apple's iPhones, for example, can still connect to Google's services, accessing their email, calendar and contacts stored in the search giant's systems if they choose. Facebook's large social network is often used by other companies as a way to login users, share media and conduct business.

But some tech giants are more protective of access to their systems. They may not offer much (or any) access to other software developers, often citing fear -- similar to Acton -- of the possible negative effects outside programs could have on their services.

That didn't stop one developer from pressing Acton to reconsider.

Mary Meeker, a well-respected Internet analyst and now senior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, defended Acton and WhatsApp after the exchange.

"I know there's frustration," she said. "But if you have a company that is the fastest and most elegant messaging service on the planet" and become part of a company like Facebook that won't force that to change, it's a good thing.