WhatsApp [BBC commentary]

You may remember a time, not too long ago, when to make a long distance phone call you had to go through an operator. You would wait as you could hear her asking another operator for a connection. It was not always successful. A lot depended on the perseverance of the operator–especially when trying to call a place like Burma.

But the basic idea worked: Anyone with a telephone could, in theory, reach anyone else with a telephone. That idea has gotten lost somewhere down the line. Remember the early days of SMS, or text messages? And how you could only send a message to someone else if they used the same operator as you? Only last year did Japanese carriers get around to allowing messages from other carriers onto their network.

This is the problem of telecommunication companies writ large. They seem unable to see that what is good for their user is good for them. Take a service called, unfortunately, WhatsApp–app being short for application. WhatsApp is one of those things we called disruptive–meaning it overturns an industry from outside. WhatsApp, and a few other services like it, are once again making a mockery of mobile phone operators.

I always know when a technology is disruptive because I usually hear about it first from my non-techie friends.. WhatsApp at its most simple allows phone users to send SMS messages to each other without paying for an SMS message, Instead, it uses the modern phone’s data connection–which is usually cheaper. WhatsApp’s viral spread–it sends more than 2 billion messages a day–is largely down to this simple feature. If you and your friend both have WhatsApp on your phone and that person’s phone number you can use the service. For $1 a year, and the first year is free.

Mobile carriers hate this because SMS messages were a big part of their business. Consultants Ovum, for example, reckon that they’ll lose more than $23 billion in mobile messaging revenue this year.. But that’s only the start. WhatsApp allows you to do things like send video, photos and have group chats very, very easily–much more easily than any service the carrier offers, and often more reliably. And WhatsApp have written versions of their software that run on even the most basic phones you see around.

Carriers are fretting, and for good reason. Not so much because they’re losing revenue but because they’re losing the bigger game. WhatsApp is grabbing their customers by offering them cheap, open doors to all their friends, in the same way that Facebook and other social networks are. They are what telcos call Over the Top services–meaning that they piggy back the cellphone network to build a social network to which the operator themselves don’t have a key, Unless of course, they close them down.

That won’t happen, of course. At some point operators may just have to settle for  less money being a pipe. Which is not a bad thing: In the spirit of those human operators of old, making sure the message gets through is not that dishonorable a profession.