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Larry Magid: WhatsApp, and how it differs from Facetime

Every once in awhile I get a call or text message from a friend asking me to join them on a Facetime call. Facetime is a great video messaging service, but it has one flaw. Although there is a way to accept a Facetime call on an Android device via a web browser, the

Larry Magid 

Facetime App, which is required to initiate a call, only works on Apple devices. That leaves out 47% of smartphone users in the U.S. and 72% worldwide.

Just about all other video apps can be used to initiate or answer calls on both Apple devices and Android, and most work on PCs and Macs. These include Zoom, Google Duo, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams and, the one I use most often, WhatsApp.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Meta, is used by more than 2 billion active monthly users as of January, according to Statcounter.com. In addition to working on iOS and Android, it can be used from the web, and this week, WhatsApp released a Windows app, which makes it easier to initiate and answer calls. The company said that it’s working on a Mac app as well, although Mac users can already use WhatsApp via their web browser.

What WhatsApp can do

WhatsApp supports video and audio calls as well as text messaging (separate from your phone’s texting or SMS feature) and the ability to add attachments. I mostly use it with colleagues and friends outside the U.S. because, unlike calls to most countries, it’s free, and there are times when I prefer to use video, although most of the time I just use audio or exchange text-based messages. I also like that it can be used on a computer or a phone. There are times when I’m sitting at my desk and it’s just more convenient to use my PC than pick up my phone. Also, when possible, I prefer using a PC, with its physical keyboard, for typing messages, and if I’m on a long video call, it’s more comfortable to be seated at my computer than to hold my phone in-front of my face. Still, it’s also great to be able to use it on the go. Just last week my son used WhatsApp to show me the beautiful terrain as he was hiking in the Swiss alps.

What Meta says WhatsApp does with your information and how it makes money

Similar to Facetime, you can message someone on WhatsApp if you know their phone number, so there’s no need for you to know their username or email address. .

Like nearly all messaging apps, WhatsApp is free. WhatsApp does make money through business services and a payment service, similar to PayPal. WhatsApp says that it does share “certain categories of information with Meta Companies, including “account registration information (such as your phone number), transaction data (for example, if you use Facebook Pay or Shops in WhatsApp), service-related information, information on how you interact with businesses when using our Services.” The company says that it doesn’t keep logs of who everyone’s messaging or calling and can’t see your shared location.

Encryption

As is the case with an increasing number of messaging apps, all WhatsApp messages are encrypted, which means that no one, other than the intended person, can view your messages. Even Meta can’t access your messages, so they can’t turn them over to authorities, even if given a court order. That might seem like a way to avoid the law (yes, criminals do use encrypted apps) but it can be a lifesaving feature for human rights advocates and others who have an extremely compelling reason to keep their messages private. It also enables organizations and companies to increase their security when passing along information that could be misused by competitors or hackers. I use Whatsapp or other encrypted apps if I need to share passwords or other sensitive information with colleagues.

Encryption is not without its critics. There are many in law enforcement and government agencies around the world who argue that it makes it harder to catch and prosecute terrorists, predators and other criminals. Encrypted apps have also been used by government officials to keep their messages confidential, sometimes in violation of federal recordkeeping laws. It can also create a false sense of security, because there may be ways around it if someone gets access to your device or password, and despite the encryption, there are ways that government officials may be able to get at least some of your information transmitted via encrypted apps. You can learn more about encryption, including pros and cons, at ConnectSafely.org/Encryption.

Plenty of other options and my pet peeve

As I mentioned earlier, WhatsApp is one of several options that work on iPhones, Android, Macs, PCs and the web. Just about all of them work well as long as you have a good internet connection. One advantage of WhatsApp is that it allows for voice and text-based messaging in a single app, but if you just want chat by video or voice, any of the apps work just fine.

For the most part, these apps don’t communicate with each other, so it’s not like making a call, sending an email or a text-message where it doesn’t matter which phone company or email service the other people use. That wasn’t always the case. Before the commercialization of the internet, you had to be on the same service to exchange email with others That was also true for text messages during the first few years after the first text message was sent in 1992.

And, as long as I’m on the subject of texting and messaging, let me share a pet peeve. Contrary to what some people seem to think, email is still alive and well. Personally, I mostly use text or messaging services when I need to send a message that needs immediate attention such as “I’ll be late for dinner” or “please pick me up on the corner of Olive and Rose.”  I’ll also use texting to engage in a back and forth conversation with someone. But, if the message isn’t urgent or at least timely, I prefer email, especially if it’s a PR company pitching me a story idea.

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