Why a Simple Messaging App's Technology Is Worth $19 Billion to Facebook

Facebook's $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp gives it access to people beyond smartphone users

2 min read
Why a Simple Messaging App's Technology Is Worth $19 Billion to Facebook
Photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion may sound like a Silicon Valley tycoon's ransom for a simple mobile messaging service. But the acquisition gives Facebook access to a mobile messaging service that can reach millions of people worldwide who access mobile Internet services through either smartphones or simpler feature phones.

The acquisition of WhatsApp, based in Mountain View, Calif., comes at a time when Internet-based mobile messaging services have become increasingly popular at the expense of standard SMS text messaging. That's because WhatsApp and other mobile messaging services offer "free" Internet messaging if users have a mobile data plan, unlike many SMS packages sold by telecommunications firms that charge customers per text. The trend has left many telecoms worried that they will become sidelined by Internet-based services and reduced to providing the mobile Internet infrastructure while others profit, the Financial Times reports.

An Informa consultancy report estimated 50 billion messages would be sent from WhatsApp and other mobile messaging services in 2014, according to TheNextWeb. By comparison, Informa estimated that just 21 billion traditional text messages would be sent this year. Still, the usage of SMS text messaging continues to rise annually, even if it pales next to the rapid growth of mobile messaging services.

Future trends among both mobile data plan subscriptions and smartphone ownership seem to favor the continued rise of mobile messaging services. MobiThinking reports that there were an estimated 2.1 billion mobile Web users as of mid 2013—a figure that has grown by 40 percent over the last three years. On the hardware side, Gartner consultants announced that worldwide sales of smartphones surpassed sales of feature phones for the first time in 2013.

WhatsApp has attracted 450 million users worldwide in part by building upon Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME), according to TextIt Blog. That has made the mobile messaging app usable on the many Nokia or Samsung feature phones available at cheaper prices compared to Apple's iPhones or Google's Android smartphones. And that advantage has allowed WhatsApp to reach customers beyond smartphone users in the developing world.

But WhatsApp is not alone in the mobile messaging market. Its rivals include Japan's Line with 350 million registered users, China's WeChat with 272 million monthly active users, and South Korea's Kakao with 133 million registered users, according to The Wall Street Journal. Such rival services differ from WhatsApp by offering many more services on top of messaging, including games and mobile payments.

Photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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