Facebook bought WhatsApp because Mark Zuckerberg dreams of the day when his messaging app has a billion users. WhatsApp is well on its way with 500 million active users, 50 million more than when Zuck acquired the startup two months ago. Not too shabby.
Even though WhatsApp has half a billion people around the world actively checking their messages each month, the app has been slow to take off in the U.S. In a Tuesday blog post announcing the milestone, WhatsApp said its fastest growth has been in Brazil, India, Mexico, and Russia.
"People who never used computers, never used laptops, never used the Internet are signing up," WhatsApp cofounder and CEO Jan Koum told Time's Harry McCracken.
WhatsApp users are sharing some 700 million photos and 100 million videos every day. Compare that to popular apps like Instagram, which sees 60 million photos a day, or Snapchat, whose users share 400 million photos and videos daily, according to a January Forbes estimate. Facebook itself sees about 350 million photos a day.
But the app's core users aren't using the service to send videos. They use it as a connection to the rest of the world. WhatsApp is working to get its app in the hands of people who have phones, but no data. Some of its efforts include subscriptions, monthly passes, and WhatsApp SIM cards. The service is basic to use, requiring just a phone number--no username and password--and collects no personal data from its users. WhatsApp recently reaffirmed its commitment to privacy with a public statement and updated privacy setting controls.
"What makes our product work is the way we're tightly focused on messaging and being an SMS replacement," Koum told Time.
Unlike other messaging apps, WhatsApp has no interest in being a social network, which must have been appealing to Zuckerberg. Facebook already has social networking down to a science. WhatsApp will help Facebook reach parts of the world that might not be able to access a fully featured website or app, but they can still send messages. They'll be using Facebook, whether they know it or not.
Zuckerberg hinted that when WhatsApp hits a billion users, figuring out to make money from the app will become more important. But growth is essential to Zuckerberg. That milestone is when WhatsApp become a valuable company, more valuable than it is now. It's halfway there.