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WhatsApp: Lifeline for immigrants

Friday, April 28, 2017

In 1992, when he was 16 years old, Jan Koum, along with his mother and grandmother, fled growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. His mother worked as a cleaner and babysitter, while Jan cleaned a grocery store, to support the family.

In 2014, Koum sold the company he created to Facebook for $19 billion. He arranged to ink the deal at the same Mountain View, CA strip mall where he’d once waited to collect food stamps.

While immigrant success stories abound in Silicon Valley, what makes Koum’s unique is how the product he created, WhatsApp, has helped over a billion users stay connected to their families and homelands.

WhatsApp is a free Internet messaging and calling application. It was originally written as a Java2 app. This means that the first versions were designed to work on largely non-smartphones, like prepaid flip phones and units that were once the lowest-cost options offered by carriers.

At the time, other non-cellular calling and messaging options (like Facebook Messenger) were largely unavailable for non-smartphones. WhatsApp became a dominant messaging and calling player outside the United States. Most of its users are in places like India (over 100 million WhatsApp users), Africa and Latin America, where smartphones were either unavailable or too expensive for many individuals to obtain.

Although it’s now available for Android and Apple iOS users, WhatsApp remains a globally popular way of staying connected – especially among immigrant communities. The app is free and has a good track record when it comes to privacy. But the attraction comes from users’ ability to make free, international calls and send text messages using their existing mobile numbers.
The app uses the phone number of the device it’s installed on as a unique user ID. So, a grandmother in Venezuela can make a free phone call to her granddaughter in Miami by simply dialing a cell phone number – regardless of the country in which the phone was issued.
Because of WhatsApp, immigrants around the world have remained connected to their families and felt less isolation. Prior to the proliferation of WhatsApp, expensive international calls and email (if it was available and relatives had access) were the only options.
Now, about one out of every seven people on Earth is a WhatsApp user. The fact that WhatsApp is widely used by immigrants to keep in touch with their families is not lost on Koum, whose father was unable to emigrate from Ukraine. As he recently told the New York Times:
“A lot of us at WhatsApp were born in other countries,” he said. “We recognize how important it is for people to connect with family thousands of miles away, because it’s something we think about a lot.” Every feature in the app, he added, “was designed in part by someone living the immigrant experience every day.”

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