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Can Signal Take Advantage of WhatsApp's Weaknesses?

 While on the surface WhatsApp remains the king of the messaging hill, beneath the surface there are some worrying signs for Facebook’s flagship platform. With its 2 billion users, WhatsApp can seem unstoppable, but it has some weaknesses in its functionality—in the way it works. And, above all, it has one dealbreaker for many—its Facebook ownership.

Signal, WhatsApp's new adversary
Signal App logo

So, what are those functionality weaknesses? Well, there’s the continued lack of genuine support for multiple devices—the option to link apps on your phone, tablet and PC to a single account. Then there’s the serious flaw in its backup option, which is required to transfer message history to a new phone. Those back-ups fall outside WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption—and that’s a critical issue.

WhatsApp voice and video calling are excellent—fully encrypted, perfectly integrated with its messaging, single-click calls for the groups we use daily. But those calls—video or voice—are constrained to our smallest screen devices. And that just doesn’t work anymore. WhatsApp knows this—multiple linked devices and desktop calling are reportedly in the works. But, in the meantime, we’re turning to the competition.

All of which makes WhatsApp’s much smaller, but much more exciting, upstart rival Signal a potential giant killer in the space. Signal is the modern-day messaging disruptor, seeking to repeat the trick WhatsApp itself carried out all those years ago, before the Facebook acquisition.

Signal was designed to put security first, that’s its USP—WhatsApp actually uses a tweaked version of the Signal protocol itself. And historically this approach made for a clunky Signal user experience. But all that’s now changing. Signal is on a mission to take on the mainstream. And if you haven’t tried the app yet, you really should.

Back in August, I reported that Signal was beta-testing voice and video calls from its brilliant desktop app—a genuine app, not the web-based smartphone scraper offered by WhatsApp. Signal also offers a seamless iPad app. There’s no need to keep your smartphone switched on or connected to access Signal from other devices.

This is much more important than it may sound. It emphasizes the multiple encrypted endpoints available in Signal, it showcases convergence—playing a convenience card to the new work from home workforce. There may not be backups with Signal, but these other encrypted instances provide resilience in case you lose your phone. And the platform appears flexible and nimble in contrast to WhatsApp. You’ll struggle to find a tech or security reporter recommending WhatsApp over Signal these days.

The more material factor, though, is what happens next. Facebook is caught between a rock and a hard place with WhatsApp. Tempted to introduce new monetization and advertising options, it knows that a user backlash will follow any overstep. And the likes of Signal and Telegram are watching and waiting. Signal is fast approaching the critical mass required to be a viable alternative for any WhatsApp exodus.

On the desktop calling specifics, Signal has started with person-to-person calls, but group calling is clearly in the works. And while this is all part of its campaign to take on WhatsApp and Telegram for the secure messaging space, it also seems to have bigger video conferencing targets in mind. “We think that calls need to zoom out of the past and into the future,” it says in its blog post.

Working from home and enforced distancing has exponentially increased our use of video calling. Zoom, Teams and Google Meet, as well as Facebook’s new Rooms, reflect this. And underpinning this new way of working is a new level of convergence between messaging and calls and an increasing need to operate seamlessly from smartphones to tablets to desktops or laptops. We are inevitably less mobile, we want to access these apps from a laptop or tablet we may be using, and not be switching to our smartphones while at home.

While the headline threat to WhatsApp likely comes from Apple’s continuing evolution of iMessage, which already offers seamless cross-platform access, and Google’s RCS rollout as an update to Android Messages, both have serious issues. That’s because both integrate with the pitifully unsecured SMS architecture. Apple’s end-to-end encryption only works while messaging users on its own ecosystem, and Google has not yet added any form of end-to-end encryption to its RCS deployment—another feature reportedly in the works.

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Signal now offers multiple device access, desktop calling, fully encrypted message history transfers to new devices, disappearing messages—another feature WhatsApp still has in the works. Furthermore, it is more secure than WhatsApp—its encryption deployment is openly viewable, it doesn’t collect any metadata, it isn’t owned by Facebook nor is it about to be integrated into a gargantuan marketing-meets-messaging machine. The integration of Facebook’s various platforms—Messenger, Instagram, eventually WhatsApp, is bad news for users.

WhatsApp remains the mainstream messenger of choice for most users. You’ll find all your contacts most likely already there, it’s easy to use and reliable, its security is good enough for 99% of its userbase, it offers a backup option (security caveats apart) for those that might lose their phones and need to restore their history. 

But this is an equation that’s changing. Signal is extremely compelling, and its user experience now beats WhatsApp in many ways, from simple emoji replies to seamless multiple device access. And on the security front, there’s no contest. Facebook’s collection of WhatsApp metadata—who you message and how often is a grey area. Conversely, Signal’s lack of any data collection is black and white.

It’s all starting to stack up toward a shift away from WhatsApp.

Unsurprisingly, while Signal user numbers are measured in tens not hundreds of millions or even billions, it is now soaring.

Zak Doffman, CEO of Digital Barriers


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