First they were ignored, then they were sneered at. But on Monday Jan Koum was the undisputed star of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. The talk by the co-founder of WhatsApp, the company that made the SMS virtually obsolete, attracted such a large audience that seats ran out and people stood or sat on the carpeting to hear the latest revelation by the popular text messaging service: the introduction of voice communications.
"Today is a very special day. On February 24th, 2009 we went to San Francisco and registered our company. We had no users, no service, nothing, just a dream," said Koum, who is also chief executive at Whats App. "We wanted to connect people. Now we have over 500 million users."
And then, the news: "We want to make sure people always have the ability to stay in touch with their friends and loved ones really affordably. We're going to introduce voice on WhatsApp in the second quarter of this year."
Silence fell over a room where attendance costs at least 6,000 dollars. That is to say, a room filled with telecoms executives (who probably did not want to hear this sort of thing). Until now, WhatsApp allowed users to record messages and deliver them walkie-talkie style, but the next step is going to be actual voice conversations, mirroring Skype.
In principle this is bad news for operators who have already seen SMS revenues dwindle. But it is likely that WhatsApp (and its brand new owner Facebook) will reach deals with mobile network operators so both sides can win - more advertising in one case, and more data use in the other.
"We promise not to change," said Koum, dressed informally in jeans. "Our philosophy is to put people in touch... Thank you for sharing WhatsApp with your friends."