(Wired) – WhatsApp is the world’s most popular smartphone messaging app, letting more than 800 million people send and receive texts on the cheap. But it’s evolving into something more.
On Tuesday, the company, which is owned by Facebook, released a new version of the app that allows people with iPhones to not only text people, but actually talk to them. This built on a similar move the company made at the end of March, when it quietly released an Android update that did the same thing. And in the week following the addition of voice calling on Android, WhatsApp-related traffic increased about 5 percent on carrier networks, according to a study by Allot Communications—an Israeli company that helps manage wireless network traffic worldwide.
That figure will likely get a lot bigger as WhatsApp shifts from being the world’s favorite messaging app to become a more wide-ranging—and bandwidth-intensive—communication tool.
Others have offered internet voice calls on smartphones, most notably Skype and Viber. But WhatsApp is different. So many people already use the app, and the company is intent on keeping it free (or nearly free). Though it has little traction here in the US, WhatsApp is enormously popular in parts of Europe and the developing world—areas where there’s a hunger for cheap communication. The result is an app that could bring inexpensive Internet calls to an audience of unprecedented size.