WhatsApp to go big on voice communications in 2nd quarter

The text-messaging startup, which Facebook is buying for $19 billion, will introduce voice communications to its 465 million users in its quest to boost that number to more than a billion.

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WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum speaking at Mobile World Congress
WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum speaking at Mobile World Congress. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- Mobile messaging startup WhatsApp will expand to voice communications in the second quarter, co-founder and chief executive Jan Koum announced Monday.

"We want to make sure people always have the ability to stay in touch with their friends and loved ones really affordably," Koum said in a speech here at Mobile World Congress. "We're going to introduce voice on WhatsApp in the second quarter of this year."

The startup has steadily risen in importance through a simple text-messaging service based on people's mobile phone numbers but avoiding carriers' common text-messaging charges. It now counts 465 million users each month -- something that no doubt was key to the $19 billion price Facebook just paid to acquire WhatsApp ($16 billion in cash and stock, and $3 billion in restricted stock units).

The WhatsApp voice service will begin with Android and iPhone apps, Koum said, and will expand later to Windows Phone and some BlackBerry phones.

The move promises to make WhatsApp more of a thorn in the side of some mobile network operators. Voice communications and SMS once were major sources of revenue, but they're steadily declining as more and more mobile activity moves to data services like video and social networking.

WhatsApp already offered voice messaging -- the ability to send recorded messages to contacts. The voice communications that Koum announced would mean something more like a telephone call than voice mail, and he was bullish about its prospects.

"We think we have the best voice product out there," he said. "We use the least amount of bandwidth and optimize the hell out of it."

Facebook already offers voice communications, but Koum said WhatsApp will be operated as an independent entity, just as with another expensive Facebook acquisition, Instagram.

"In order for WhatsApp to be successful, it really needs to be independent," Koum said. "There are no planned changes. We can only get our product to a billion or 2 billion users if we continue down the path we started on."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has tried to encourage its users to share more about themselves, but WhatsApp will continue with its own, very separate strategy, Koum said.

"We as a company and product want to know as little as possible about our users. We don't want to know your name or where you live," he said. "There's no plans to change that."

WhatsApp is free to use for the first year, then costs $1 per year after that.