Controversial changes aim to allow small firms to upload catalogues and let users buy without leaving the app
On Saturday, WhatsApp will finally begin to force users to accept its controversial new terms of service, almost half a year after it first announced plans to do so.
Despite an immediate backlash from users, millions of sign-ups to rival messaging firms, and even questions asked in the House of Commons, WhatsApp has pushed ahead with the new rules. The company says the actual changes are small, and that the wave of panic from users in January was driven more by misinformation spread, ironically, on WhatsApp itself than by any reasonable concerns.
But, analysts say, acceptance of the rules is crucial if Facebook is to achieve its goal since it bought WhatsApp for $19bn in 2014 – to turn the service into the western equivalent of WeChat, an “everything app” where users can chat not only with friends and family, but also order pizzas, pay utility bills, and contact essential government services.Read more
Despite the fury from some users, the plan looks like it might succeed. Just under one in four users know that the app plans to change its terms and conditions, despite 95% of Britons using WhatsApp, according to stats from the global research platform Appinio. Even fewer, less than 15%, say they no longer “want” to use WhatsApp because of the planned changes, and history suggests many of them will stick around on the app anyway.
The struggle dates back to October 2020, when WhatsApp first announced its plans to update the app. A new set of features would allow small businesses to upload their catalogues direct to the app, letting any WhatsApp user message a company, browse their wares and complete a purchase, all without needing to leave WhatsApp.
The goal of the changes was clear, says the analyst Martin Garner of CCS Insight. “Facebook has ambitious plans for expanding its messaging services to achieve what Tencent has done in China with WeChat, where people interact with businesses and shops, plus pay for goods and services using the messaging app.
“WeChat also has its own mini apps and games, and has become an essential part of the fabric of day-to-day life there. Achieving this position would be a huge prize for Facebook.”
But when the change was pushed to users in January, there was panic, ultimately leading to millions of new sign-ups for competing services such as Signal and Telegram, as well as questions in the House of Commons, ultimately forcing a three-month delay in the plans.
Despite that, however, Daniel O’Connell, research vice-president for the analyst Gartner, predicts success for the company. “The success of WhatsApp Business API further differentiates WhatsApp from competing offerings, making WhatsApp even more valuable, ubiquitous, and difficult to displace. Rival WeChat has proven the value of messaging app business usage.
“Obviously WhatsApp has the baggage of being owned by Facebook and the (real and perceived) potential misuse of info by Facebook. But WhatsApp is ubiquitous, cheap, practical, and intuitive. Hence, the vast majority of smartphone users from five to 95 – cradle to grave – routinely use WhatsApp.”
The company has announced that users who refuse to accept the new terms of service will slowly lose access to WhatsApp entirely. From Saturday, they will be unable to dismiss the screen asking them to accept the new terms, although they will still be able to receive phone calls, and reply to messages through notifications. In time, however, even that will be disabled, leaving users with no choice but to accept the new rules, or delete their accounts entirely.
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