WhatsApp: Instant Messaging for the iPhone Elite

There’s certainly no shortage of social networking-related applications for the iPhone. Some are great, and some are fairly dire; it’s a hard concept to execute well on a mobile device. A few days ago, a fellow iPhone touting friend introduced me to WhatsApp. The concept is essentially free iPhone-to-iPhone messaging, and sharing of links, photos, maps and audio.

I’ve been using WhatsApp for a few days, and felt that it merited a review on the site. It’s simple, clever to set up, and works reliably between all the devices and friends I tried it with. A version is also available for Blackberry, so you can interact with a slightly wider circle of friends.

Setting Up WhatsApp

When launching the application for the first time, you’ll be asked to provide your iPhone’s cell number and a name that you’d like to be identified by. The app then searches your contact list for any numbers that are already registered with the service – a clever twist that makes it easy to immediately have your circle of friends added to WhatsApp.

It’s also easy to invite people manually, either via email or SMS. This is worth doing for any other colleagues or friends you know use an iPhone or Blackberry, as WhatsApp only really comes into it’s own when you actually have people to interact with!

Adding Your Contacts

Adding Your Contacts

You can maintain a list of Favourites, as with the standard iPhone “Phone” app, or browse your full contacts list for anyone who is WhatsApp enabled. Tapping a contact will, as you’d expect, show their full entry.

The fact that WhatsApp works with your phone number is one of the features that really caught my attention. There’s no need to share usernames or IDs with your friends – everything is automatic, and you’re sharing a standard piece of information. The only down-side to this is that you can’t invite someone to chat with you without also giving them your phone number. Whether that’s a problem or not will depend upon how private you like to keep your contact details!

Chatting & Sharing

The first thing to set up is your status. You can choose from a pre-set list of different options or enter your own. This is what other people see before contacting you, so it’s possible to make it obvious that you’re busy, or available to chat.

Status Updates & Chatting

Status Updates & Chatting

After tapping on a contact and starting a new chat session, you’ll find that it works in a fairly similar fashion to other instant messaging apps that you’ve used. You can see new messages instantly after they’re sent, view a notification that the other party is typing, and pretty much send/receive any type of media that you’d like.

Sharing audio, pictures, and video (if you have a 3GS) works reliably, and the process is fairly fast. The main selling point of WhatsApp is that all this interaction is completely free. After purchasing the application, you stand to save quite a bit on SMS and MMS/picture messages.

It’s also possible to share your location. WhatsApp will discover where you are, and send a small map thumbnail across to your contact. This can then be easily opened in the Maps application.

Notifications

As you’d expect, WhatsApp uses push notifications to inform you when a message arrives. It’s similar to receiving a text message, only rather than receiving a new SMS, the prompt opens WhatsApp. This isn’t quite as fast as quickly reading an SMS, but it’s an acceptable delay for all the extra information that you can send/receive through the system.

Push Notification

Push Notification

Settings & Integration

Settings are fairly limited – always a good sign – though you do have a few options and reports to play with. These include:

  • Investigating your usage – How many messages and bytes sent/received
  • Chat settings – Your name, wallpaper, notification sound, and how incoming media is saved
  • The ability to clear your chat history, or email it to yourself (good to know you can get data out as well as in)
  • Firewall Mode – For if you’re behind a proxy, or need fine control over network settings
  • The option to prevent your screen from automatically locking when using WhatsApp

Settings

Facebook integration also runs through the app, so you can mirror your WhatsApp status updates across to Facebook. Handy if you end up using WhatsApp on a regular basis.

Join the Elite

The reason I’m drawn towards WhatsApp is that is separates your regular contacts from those who own iPhones (or another smartphone). It’s a wonderfully elite system, and makes the most of the functionality possible when you have an always-on data connection.

If you have a few friends who you could persuade to get started using WhatsApp, I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. It’s social networking at the absolute simplest, and “just works” – a quality that I absolutely love in any software.


Summary

WhatsApp is a smartphone-to-smartphone messenger/chat application that automatically discovers your friends and makes it easy (and free) to share text, pictures, audio, video, or your location.

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