Popularity is the kind of thing that can easily make a person's priorities change. A person, a website, an institution that becomes popular may start changing the way it acts to accommodate its newfound popularity. WhatsApp has found itself on the upshot of that kind of popularity of late, with increasing numbers of users and the deal with Facebook (News - Alert) still in the works—European regulators, at last report, are still pending on the deal—but even in the midst of this, the company's CEO, Jan Koum, is still calling for focus.
Just yesterday, the company hit a major milestone, reaching fully 500 million active users a month. What's more, those 500 million monthly active users are running plenty of traffic through WhatsApp, with 700 million photos and 100 million videos, on average, running through the app daily. While some might call this a cause for celebration, and certainly not without reason, Koum's focus is on keeping the app working. When asked about the company's plans for celebrating its huge new milestone, Koum's response was “We're going to get our engineers together and fix a lot of bugs.”
Koum went on to elaborate that, while the company hasn't exactly brought out any big new features, it's made a lot of little changes. More specifically, according to Koum, the company has “...had probably 1,000 little bug fixes and improvements.” Indeed, both Koum and co-founder Brian Acton reportedly spent most of a week answering customer support e-mails, just so the duo could help find new areas to fix. While this might seem a little bit like just marking time to some, others—like Koum himself—note that this is likely the best way to keep WhatsApp growing: keep it simple, and keep it working to its fullest. Koum reportedly believes that keeping WhatsApp from becoming overly complex—some even say “bloated” here—would be to remove the biggest impediment to WhatsApp's continued growth.
Focus, for Koum, is the key to success. As he puts it: “I worry about how to offer a competitive set of features without making the UI difficult, the user experience worse, the application bloated. These screens are small. There's a limited amount of memory and bandwidth. It's just all about focus.”
WhatsApp has plenty of competitors, too, and some of these are actually winning on some fronts. WhatsApp is currently taking something of a drubbing in Asian countries, with Line beating WhatsApp in Japan and WeChat in China doing likewise. But with WhatsApp's clear focus on making the app better—not just with more features—it may well have the key to ultimate success in the field.
WhatsApp is addressing a fundamental point of app development here. While the temptation is there to make a Swiss Army knife-style app that can do everything, it may well be better to avoid that idea and instead focus on just taking one idea as far as development will allow. WhatsApp is working that focus particularly hard—the company recently hired a Turkish speaker in order to make sure that there's always someone around who speaks the language of whatever country might call in for customer service support—and it's quite clearly paying off.
Making an app is one thing. Making an app better is entirely another. WhatsApp, meanwhile, is clearly out to make its app the best it can be, and is constantly working to refine its focus and deliver the best experience it can in one rather narrow space.
Edited by Maurice Nagle
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