Predicting the Future of Messaging with WhatsApp Head Will Cathcart

What happens next with the 2 billion-plus user messaging app, and the company that runs it.

When WhatsApp head Will Cathcart dialed into our call last Friday, his 2 billion user slice of the Facebook empire was in the thick of it, as usual. WhatsApp had just weathered a bungled privacy update that sent panicked users to Signal and Telegram. It was scrambling to make sense of a new Indian law that might force it to break encryption. And it was preparing to roll out desktop voice and video calling — which it introduced today

Cathcart took questions on a variety of topics. And through winks and nods, he indicated where his app — and Facebook — are headed. In this week’s newsletter, I’ll share some of Cathcart’s perspective on the crucial issues facing WhatsApp, and my predictions on where things will go based on his responses. 

You can listen to our full conversation on Big Technology Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Overcast.

Apple’s war with Facebook

Facebook and Apple are locked in a fierce war over messaging. Apple knows that its customers can switch to Android more easily when they use Messenger and WhatsApp. On Facebook’s apps, you don’t have to worry about breaking group chats or appearing as a green bubble on Android. So Apple’s worked overtime to undermine people’s trust in Facebook.

Cathcart spoke plainly about Apple’s offensive. “It's certainly in their strategic interest that people not use something like WhatsApp,” he said, “because they want people to not use an Android phone.” I asked him if the two companies spoke about their differences. “We get treated presumably, I think, like any other developer,” he said. The relationship seems icy.

Prediction: Facebook and Apple’s feud will escalate further, becoming the most intense war among the tech giants for years to come. 

Disappearing messages 

It’s somewhat absurd that mobile messages stick around forever. But that’s changing. On WhatsApp, you can finally send messages that disappear in seven days. And on Messenger and Instagram, a new Vanish Mode makes messages disappear when you close the chat. 

Cathcart indicated Facebook plans to expand its disappearing message options. “We were really excited about disappearing messages,” he said. “I think there's a lot more we can do there… so we're working on that.”

Prediction: Facebook will make disappearing messages a core privacy option on Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram this year.

The Signal threat

Signal, a WhatsApp competitor backed by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, is booming. People downloaded it in such massive numbers in January — when WhatsApp botched its privacy update — that they broke the app. Signal is encrypted, doesn’t use data for ads, and lets you set messages to disappear in as few as five seconds. It’s a compelling alternative.

Cathcart didn’t give any hint that he sees Signal as a unique threat. “There's a bunch of apps we worry about all the time,” he said.

Prediction: Though Facebook sees Signal as just one of many apps today, that won’t last for long. Signal will become Facebook’s primary messaging competitor within two years. 

Encryption in India 

In late February, the Indian government announced new rules that could force WhatsApp to break its encryption. The rules could require WhatsApp to trace messages back to their original sender. So, if a rumor gets forwarded around the service, the government could potentially force WhatsApp to figure out who started it. If WhatsApp refuses to go along, there’s a chance the Indian government could ban it. 

Cathcart refused to say whether WhatsApp would break encryption to comply with this rule. But he didn’t seem eager to roll with the plan. “We face this in a bunch of places, and we've been blocked,” he said. “There's a lot of places where we take the risk every day that we may just not be able to operate tomorrow.”

Prediction: WhatsApp stands firm, makes a few concessions that don’t compromise its encryption, and the Indian government does not block it.

WhatsApp’s plan to limit virality

One of the most surprising things Facebook has done recently is limit the number of times you can forward a message on WhatsApp. Facebook runs on the share button, which enables virality, and the “forward” is how you share on WhatsApp. So limiting forwards seemed like an admission that the share — which can cause misinformation and outrage to spread — wasn’t an abject good. 

Cathcart said WhatsApps’s reforms cut forwarding by 25% globally and “highly forwarded messages” by 70%. He seemed happy about it, but wasn’t eager to see the same limits adapted to Facebook. “We think private messaging is different than social media [in a] large forum,” he said. 

Prediction: Though limiting forwards on WhatsApp has been a success, Facebook proper will keep the share button exactly the way it is.


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Thanks as always for reading

I thought I’d try something experimental this week. How did you like this new format? What else should I look into? Thanks again for being part of the Big Technology community.

See you next Thursday.