Your Path to a $16B exit? Build a J2ME App

So it finally happened, Facebook snatched up WhatsApp for the not so bargain price of $16B to the simultaneous head explosion of every entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. A common cry echoed around the world "But, but, how is WhatsApp any different than iMessage / Facebook Messenger / Hangouts?"

To that, I have one answer: J2ME

See, WhatsApp wasn't born in Silicon Valley on an iPhone, rather it fought its way to a $16B exit by providing an awesome messaging experience to the middle billion, those living on $10 a day. And you know what, on $10 a day you probably don't have an iPhone or an Android handset. Rather you are probably carrying around a "feature phone", one of a thousands variations of handsets built by Nokia or Samsung running a version of Java 2 Mobile Edition. (J2ME)

Writing J2ME apps is no cakewalk. While Android developers might whine about having to support myriad resolutions and versions of the API, J2ME ends up being less a standard and more a series of rough guidelines. There is no shortcut, you just have to test on every device, each with its own unique bugs and idiosyncrasies. Building a high quality app aimed at J2ME is the very definition of shlep, it is incredibly time consuming, boring and frustrating work.

That was the genius of WhatsApp really, they recognized that messaging apps are all about network effects and instead of focusing on the comparatively small market of the 'developed world', instead targeted the other 3 billion people who don't have smartphones. And at that they have been supremely successful.

If you are anywhere apart from the States, WhatsApp is the de facto standard for messaging. Here in Rwanda, it has far more penetration than Facebook, it is used by literally everybody who has a capable device. That came about not by having some edgy new user interface, or by a gimmick around disappearing messages, but by providing real value, value that can be measured in the pocketbook of a market that is massively under served.

So the next time you are thinking about "putting a dent in the universe", maybe you should look a bit farther, and maybe, just maybe you should start with a J2ME app.

PS. Though I love WhatsApp as a consumer, there is tremendous untapped good that could come from it if they made their API open for some (not all!) organizations. Those same low income customers could be helped by simple messaging campaigns that TextIt could help build. If anybody from WhatsApp is reading this and wants to see how that could happen with a big partner like UNICEF, please reach out.

Update: Note that it turns out I was wrong, and WhatsApp was originally written for iOS, but my point stands. What made it uniquely successful was that they were ubiquitous across platforms (Android, iOS, Blackberry, S40 / J2ME) and targeted developing markets with a solution that saved real money.

109 responses
Garry Tan upvoted this post.
"If you are anywhere apart from the States, WhatsApp is the de facto standard for messaging". That's not true at all, it's barely used in Europe.
Sorry, you are right. Replace "States" with "Western Nations".
"Barely used in Europe" It's the de facto standard in Germany.
Barely used in Europe? Get yor facts straight. 95% market penetration in Germany alone. Similar figures for Spain and other European countries.
@Ludo it is heavily used in Spain and Germany.
>> "If you are anywhere apart from the States, WhatsApp is the de facto standard for messaging". > That's not true at all, it's barely used in Europe Actually, I'm in the UK, and there are tonnes of people who use it. Young people, old people, colleagues, friends. I use it more than any other method of messaging. It's quite well used here.
Barely used in Europe?? I almost don't know anyone who is NOT using it - especially those younger than 30yo
I can tell from first-hand experience that it's also de facto standard in Spain and very common in Sweden and Denmark. The guy who said it's barely used in Europe does not have a clue.
I'd like to see some factual data because I'm not buying it. Maybe it is rather popular in the UK and Germany, but I know for sure it's not very popular in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. (Sure, you'll find some people like expats who're using it, but it doesn't even come close to SMS). And I would be very surprised if it's the "de facto" standard in all the other European countries...
It is the standard messaging system in the Netherlands as well. Wonder where Ludo is living!
Arguing about European adoption rates is really missing the point. In all fairness it's very popular in the US as well and is continuing to spread. The point of the article holds that WhatsApp's success has a lot to do with it's ubiquity extending to developing nations (as well as these Western nations where they are continuing to gain market share) -- and without strong device support, this wouldn't have happened.
I did a quick search but didn't find much useful info. This is an old article (end of 2012) and claims Whatsapp reaches 14% in France... If anyone has any more recent data, something more reliable than an internet comment, please share...
Not sure why you're quoting stats from early 2012. It's not relevant. Here are some more recent numbers, (June 2103): Spain: 99% UK: 49% Germany 91% Italy: 93% These are market share numbers for mobile messaging apps:
Thanks, this article is slightly more useful. Still I wouldn't say 4 countries are reprentative for Europe as a whole. On top of that, it only compare mobile messaging apps, while many people while many people don't use any of those... Believe it or not, some people don't even have internet access on their phone...
"Still I wouldn't say 4 countries are reprentative for Europe as a whole." Those four countries make up almost half the population of the EU. I'd say that's a pretty representative sample...
"See, WhatsApp wasn't born in Silicon Valley on an iPhone" Yes it was: "Then in January 2009, he bought an iPhone and realized that the seven-month old App Store was about to spawn a whole new industry of apps."
I guess the world's biggest database of phone numbers was incredibly valuable for facebook. Actually it's priceless ;)
It is a step in the right direction to engage with the billion customers on featurephones but if there is really going to be value realised among this market they will need a way to transact. enabling a mobile commerce marketplace that works of featurephones will be key.
Stop grasping Ludo, you only have to admit you were wrong and it'll be all over.
Point me to that J2ME version of WhatsApp. Where do you got your information? I don't see it anywhere on WhatsApp site!
You make it sound a big deal to develop J2ME app. This app that you are talking about basically has just 2 screens, so I wouldn't think it would be any big deal to replicate those screens across platforms. Their challenge is more on the server-side, scaling for all the billions of users that they have - again, no big deal for plain text but mostly the pictures and the videos that are shared ...few big datacenters somewhere...again, nothing great. And hey, they dont even support voice calls. So sorry, I dont buy that the app itself is a deal breaker. It's mostly their user base that they have been paid for.
Sandeep, yes of course they are paying for the users. But they got those users by addressing not just the smartphone market but all the less 'sexy' handsets that are largely ignored by app makers these days. No doubt scaling the server side is hard, but take my word for it, developing a high quality app across many different (very cheap) J2ME apps is no mean effort either.
Couldn't agree more, it has blown head of almost all entrepreneurs head in the WORLD.
@Oliver: "Stop grasping Ludo, you only have to admit you were wrong and it'll be all over" Sorry i don't see that: "Data: Reach (monthly active users) of messaging apps in each given country. among Phone users in June 2013." I see it's used a lot in Germany but i don't belive it's anywhere near beeing a defacto standard.
edit: ... among iPhone users in June 2013."
edit: ... among iPhone users in June 2013."
"See, WhatsApp wasn't born in Silicon Valley on an iPhone" I see the point you're trying to make about supporting multiple OS' and handsets, but to my knowledge Jan Koum created WhatsApp in Mountain View, originally for the iPhone.
Re: usage in europe, in Spain whatsapp has become a common verb (wasapear), that's how common the usage is!
"That's not true at all, it's barely used in Europe." That's not true, and I'd like to see evidence of that. To my knowledge, it is much used in Spain and Portugal.
WhatsApp is synonymous to sending a message with a smart phone in the Netherlands. 'To app' is a widely understood verb amongst 18 - 35 year olds over here.
I'm in europe and I had no idea it was as used as some ppl are saying here in the comments. I never used it. I don't know anybody that uses it. Ok, maybe 2 or 3 ppl. I thought it was a USA thing. My only conclusion is that in those countries where it is used so much ppl probably have a shitty plan in their mobile phones. I only use SMSs. And I use them a lot. Why? Everybody can read and send them. Phones are for that and calls. I pay 5€ a month and have free and unlimited SMSs for almost everybody in my network. From what I understand I'd need internet to use this thing called whatsapp. For that I would need to pay more in my plan for shitty limited download traffic. Althought I know most operators have something like "unlimited" traffic for a specific app. But still, pay more for that.
Thank you for explaining this so concisely. Wasn't really groking the big deal but get it now. I hope they're reading!
Speaking about J2ME world by today, have a look to that site charts
Speaking about J2ME world by today, have a look to that site charts:
Facebook's next target might be Viber... I love and use Whatsapp alot, and I live in States.
100% wrong on this post! couldn't find any info about whatsapp for j2me on wiki
Henry Ford and the Japanese "kaisan" generation proved up this theory. When strategizing the 80/20% rule I like to look to the 80% slice while evaluating the dollar logistics and ease of market penetration of the high profit (possibly) 20%. As the expression goes "less can be more and more can be less". Kudos to throwing out $16B....might as well slaughter a sheep as a lamb. I believe this decision will within 36 months make their stakeholders very happy.
Are there any free alternatives to WhatsApp?
@Ian, you know what they say about not trusting Wikipedia ;) It's under the "Nokia" links on the Download page
Here's what I want to know: if iPhone users install through the app store, how do the J2ME phones install it? I'm sure the answer is obvious but it escapes me at the moment. Thanks!
In Brazil people don't exchange phone numbers anymore. If you pickup a lady at a bar she "gives you her whattsapp". And besides the high penetration of smartphones in big cities, a lot of this culture was possible thanks to the cross-platform support.
I just wondering that why there are no body use Wechat!
What a horrible post ! Without a number, statistic... a shame. Please, if you wanna write something serious, first of all, give up of doing wrong assumptions to the rest of the world, based on your experience. And second, search for more realistic database, with number, audience, % of devices to WhatsApp and etc.
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um it's used everywhere apart from the USA? except where I live, which isn't the USA. Just because Microsoft acquired Hotmail, as one of the first, and bigger acquisitions of the time, didn't make it the default email portal. I don't suspect this will become the default messenger portal either.
Thanks a lot for this article, which I really enjoyed reading. Still ... most of your "assumptions" are based on pure retrospective explainability. I had the feeling you attempted to find just any relation between what Whatsapp is or was and it´s success.
I had never even heard of WhatsApp until they were purchased. Everyone uses SMS and FaceBook in Australia. Pretty much 100% marketshare for both. Facebook for group messaging, SMS for private messaging.
I wrote my first mobile apps for palm pilot, so you guess I have been through enough of technology waves. Couple of thoughts. J2me apps are difficult to develop for 2 reasons. First is computing resources on the device. To illustrate how ridiculous this was. If you are technical, you surely heard about object oriented programming. That means organizing code better into "classes". Imagine Nokia's j2me manual at the time advised against using minimum of that goodness. Each class introduce overhead of 200 bytes. One photo on iPhone is like 10000 of those. Second is fragmentation. Many device makers had their own ideas of what j2me is. I remember writing two versions of an app for nokia and samsung. The comment about siple 2 screen ui is misleading. I guess the biggest problem for whatsapp was networking layer. You know sending and receiving messages without freezing your screen. This separation of what you see and networking happening in the background, technically called multithreading, is tricky in the fragmented world of j2me. My guess the second difficulty was smart caching of messages on the memory poor devices on the slow networks without draining battery on too many network requests. Slow means 2g not even edge or GPRS, sorry for tech terms again. In short if software development is a dance, j2me is the craziest tap dance you could imagine. iPhone is your waltz by comparison. So it makes for an interesting kind of developer to be good at that. Interestingly, though anecdotally, two best j2me devs that I know, both are from Ukraine. One is still there, the other is in Israel.
That is a point! they made sure the low income consumers can have an app with good user experience and that made the whole difference in the end.
There's a messaging app called "Hike" that's available on iOS, Android, WP, Blackberry, Symbian and J2ME. It's a much more polished app with a beautiful interface and cute stickers. It's no slouch either. The only thing lacking is user adoption. :(
I have a problem with the description of "feature phones". What is a "feature phone"?. In my view, if a phone can install third party apps to it, it's a SMARTPHONE. A PalmOS phone was a Smartphone. A WinCE phone was a smartphone. If a phone has a Java VM then it's a JAVA SMARTPHONE. Yet, those have been called "feature phones" or worse "dumb phones" for far too long. Who benefits from this lie? Apple and Google, of course... I still run the GMail for Java app on my 2007 Palm Centro running PalmOS and the IBM J9 Java VM. Also, writing J2ME apps is not the hell you present it, if you use modern tools like Netbeans and include the necessary checks for support of the different J2ME extensions (JSRs). Opera Mini, UCWeb and the Bolt browser are examples of succesful JavaME apps. So, please, stop calling these "Feature Phones" and start calling them "Java enabled smartphones". FC
Brett Gibson upvoted this post.
If you're into JavaME or J2ME :) check outHECL a tiny opensource scripting language to build mobile Java apps It's open source to boot.
Its easier said than done mate. There were lot of similar application exists in all kind of platform, you need luck more than anything else to get these kind of numbers. Some how whatsapp become de-facto and this is where it succeed.
WhatsApp success is one in two decade, it's not going to happen so frequently. There are many application in Java but they don't seem to get success like whasapp. Thanks
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