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If you own a smartphone, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of WhatsApp. In fact, WhatsApp is the world’s most popular mobile messenger application.
More than 1.5 billion people use this app on a monthly basis.
Let me take a moment to put that into perspective for you. Facebook Messenger has 1.3 billion active monthly users, and Skype has 300 million monthly users.
For those of you who are thinking of building a messenger app, following the lead of those who succeeded before you is always a good idea. You can learn from WhatsApp, replicate their features, and model your own app the same way.
Look—I can’t sit here and promise that you’ll reach 1 billion monthly users. That’s an extremely challenging milestone. But it’s better to shoot for the stars and see where you land.
Before you can attempt to build a mobile messenger app like WhatsApp, you need to understand the costs associated with this type of development project.
Let’s start from the beginning. WhatsApp was founded a decade ago, back in 2009.
The founders, Brian Acton and Jan Koum both previously worked for Yahoo. The duo left Yahoo in 2007 to pursue other ventures.
Interestingly enough, Brian Acton applied for a job at Facebook in 2009, around the same time he was developing WhatsApp. His job application was ultimately rejected.
Now fast forward five years; In 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion.
That’s right. The company was worth nearly $20 billion just five years after inception. It’s an astronomical figure.
Realistically, you can’t build an app like this for pennies. For those of you who want to create an exact clone of WhatsApp, you must be willing to spend the money.
Initially, Acton and Koum raised $250,000 from some of their old colleagues at Yahoo for their seed funding round. Based on what the app eventually sold for, it’s safe to say they made a huge return on their investment.
But that didn’t happen overnight. Take a look at the company’s user growth in the early users.
As you can see from the graph, the user base grew exponentially. After just four years from the launch date, WhatsApp had 419 million monthly active users. That’s nearly triple the number of users Facebook had in its first four years.
In fact, WhatsApp grew at a faster rate than Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and Skype combined.
So if you want to duplicate that success, you need to make sure that your features are solid and robust enough to penetrate a global market, just like WhatsApp.
WhatsApp messaging relies on an Internet connection.
This is a cost-effective alternative to SMS messages, which are traditionally offered by mobile carrier networks.
The reason why WhatsApp works so well is because it’s secure, reliable, and private. Users don’t have to worry about forgetting a password, username, or being locked out of the app.
That’s because the app works by connecting directly to the user’s mobile phone number. Phone numbers can’t be duplicated.
Similar to AOL Instant Messenger, WhatsApp allows users to set a status. So if you’re in a meeting or on the road, you can communicate this with your connects. Other messenger platforms have similar variations.
For example, Skype has a few different status options:
However, WhatsApp takes its status feature to the next level.
This platform takes more of a social media approach to status updates. It can be compared to an Instagram or Snapchat story.
In addition to text, WhatsApp status supports photos, videos, GIFs, and emojis. This allows for complete personalization.
But the main reason for the widespread usage and success of WhatsApp comes down to its basic principle. The app uses an Internet connection, Wifi, or cellular data to exchange real-time messages from anywhere in the world.
For international calls, Verizon charges $0.49 per minute. They charge $0.25 and $0.20 for outgoing and incoming international texts, respectively.
Those costs can add up quickly. But WhatsApp lets users communicate domestically and internationally for free.
To build an app like WhatsApp, you need to know what features to include.
As with any other mobile app, each additional feature will cost you more money. So it’s up to you whether or not you want to include these or not.
We’ll breakdown the key features of WhatsApp to help you make your decision.
To create a viable messaging app, obviously, users need to have the ability to start a conversation. You need to set up a dedicated button that lets users begin a dialogue and then select a person from their contacts list, which needs to be integrated as well.
To create a similar app, you’ll also need a way for users to manage their conversations from one screen.
WhatsApp instant messaging works with an Internet connection, so there aren’t any SMS fees.
Even if a WhatsApp user is offline and doesn’t have a connection, they’ll receive an incoming message as soon as they are back online.
In addition to text messages, users can also send photos, videos, audio files, and documents to each other via WhatsApp instant messaging.
WhatsApp messages use XMPP (extensible messaging and presence protocol) technology.
It’s also worth noting that WhatsApp messages aren’t stored on its server. The messages are temporarily situated on the server until the recipient acknowledges the message. Once this happens, it’s delivered and automatically removed from the server’s temporary storage.
If you want to store messages on the server for your mobile messenger app, you’ll need to make sure that the information is protected.
VoIP stands for “voice over Internet protocol.” That’s how WhatsApp facilitates phone calls.
As the name implies, calling works through the Internet, using Wifi connection or the user’s cellular network data plan. It has nothing to do with the calling ability of mobile network plan.
Simply put, users won’t have their minutes depleted or get charged for making calls through WhatsApp. However, users could be charged by their mobile carrier if they exceed data limitations through their plan.
Even without a data plan, any calls made while a device is connected to Wifi is completely free.
WhatsApp only allows calls to other WhatsApp users. So for example, users couldn’t call a landline with this app.
In addition to voice calls, WhatsApp also offers video chat with other WhatsApp users.
Again, this is completely free, worldwide. It works the same way as VoIP using the Internet via Wifi or cellular data. Video chats are similar to Skype or Facetime.
WhatsApp users also have the ability to communicate in groups. With group chats, users can share text messages, images, and videos with each other.
Up to 256 users can be added to one group.
Group chats can be customized and named, so it’s easy for users to keep track of their conversations. Another top feature of group chats is the ability to mute or customize the notifications.
Furthermore, WhatsApp also offers group calls. In 2018, they rolled out group video chat for iOS and Android users.
While you can add more than 250 people to a group chat, group video calls are limited to four participants.
WhatsApp allows users to share their location with contacts in real-time. This feature is called “Live Location.”
Now users can tell friends exactly where they are, making it easy for them to find each other for meeting up. It’s easier than giving someone an address, especially if you’re going to be on the move.
For example, let’s say you’re walking around in a city. If a friend is coming to meet you, all you’d have to do is send them your location. Then you can continue moving around as opposed to waiting at specific landmark or meetup spot.
For security purposes, users can set a timer for how long they want to share their location. Alternatively, users can always manually stop sharing their location with someone as well.
With iOS apps, you’ll use Apple’s Core Location framework for geolocation integration.
WhatsApp can also connect with the calendar on a user’s phone. All the user needs to do is grant permission for WhatsApp to access their calendar.
Now if someone sends them an instant message with a date or time, the user can simply click on the message and add it to their calendar. This is much easier than going through the process manually.
For example, let’s say you’re using WhatsApp to communicate with someone for business. They send you a message saying to call them tomorrow at noon. This can be added to your calendar in seconds. From there, you can always manage alerts and recurring events as well.
WhatsApp uses cloud services in a few different ways. We already talked about how they don’t store messages on their server. But with that said, users still have the ability to store everything.
The best way to do this with a messaging app is with cloud service synchronization. This progressive functionality makes it easy for users to backup the app’s content to the cloud.
Furthermore, notifications can be managed through cloud services as well. Whenever a WhatsApp user gets a message, gets invited to a group, or something along these lines, they’ll get a notification sent to their device.
How is this implemented? The server sends notifications to app users via cloud services and HTTP/2 multiplex protocol. You can use this same method for notifications in your messenger app.
Whenever you’re developing any type of mobile app, security always needs to be a top priority.
As I said earlier, one of the reasons why WhatsApp has seen so much success is because it’s safe and reliable. That’s because messages are sent with end-to-end encryption.
This graphic shows you the difference between end-to-end encryption and other methods.
For example, Instagram, Skype, and Twitter are not end-to-end. This means that the developers of those apps have access to any message sent through the platform. Law enforcement can also access those messages.
That’s not the case with WhatsApp. The only people who have access to messages through this platform are the people involved in the conversation. Even the WhatsApp developers can’t read the messages. This is another reason why WhatsApp doesn’t store messages on their server.
So if you want to build a WhatsApp replica app, you’ll definitely need to use end-to-end encryption.
WhatsApp offers multimedia file transmission as a standard feature. This means that all different types of files and data can be sent through the app.
We’ve already discussed some of these in greater detail. But they all have different file extensions. You’ll need to include these capabilities if you want your app to function the same way as WhatsApp.
In order to do this, multimedia files can be delivered to an HTTP server before sending a link to the content with a Base64 encoded thumbnail.
Now that you know what features need to be included to build an app like WhatsApp, it’s time to take a deeper look at the costs.
Remember, these are estimates only. Costs will ultimately vary based on a wide range of factors like who you hire, what technology you use, and what platform you develop for.
Even if you have some coding experience, you can’t build an app this complex on your own. You’re going to need to assemble a software development team to help you out. These are some of the roles that need to be filled:
Everyone will have varying rates. The location of your software development team members will also impact the cost per hour.
As you can see from this graphic, development costs in the United States could be up to 25 times higher than development costs in India.
Rather than hiring each role individually, you could look for an all-in-one solution. Mobile app development agencies will probably be your best bet.
An agency will already have these defined roles. Plus, they are used to building apps together as a team. Agency costs will vary depending on the size of the company.
Some of the app features will be more complex than others. We’ll go through some hourly estimates for how long it will take to develop the essential front-end and backend elements.
Again, these are just estimates. Each phase could always be shorter or longer. But I’d say the majority of your messenger app development hours will fall into these ranges.
Based on these estimations, it should take you about 570 to 730 hours to build an app like WhatsApp. For our purposes, we’ll take the average of those two figures, which is 650 hours.
Now that you have a rough estimate for how many hours the development process will take, it’s just a matter of doing some simple math.
I took the average rates of the regions we looked at earlier to reach the final costs. All of these calculations are based on 650 hours of development.
We can also look at some of the extremes instead of the averages. For example, let’s say it takes you the estimated maximum of 730 hours to develop your app. You decide to go with an agency in the United States that charges $250 per hour. In this scenario, it would cost you $182,500 to build the app.
On the flip side, it could take you a low estimate of 570 hours to build your app using a cheap developer overseas at just $10 per hour. That would cost you just $5,700.
Truthfully, none of these extreme scenarios are realistic. First of all, you don’t need to find the most expensive developers in the world. If you did go with a higher-end agency that charges an above-average hourly rate, it likely wouldn’t take them as long to complete the process.
Alternatively, a budget developer overseas won’t have the capacity to complete your project so quickly. Plus, the quality of your app would suffer if you went this route.
I bring up these extreme examples because I don’t want you to look at these numbers and think you can build an app like WhatsApp for less than $6,000. It’s also unlikely that you’d have to pay upward of $180,000.
Based on the global estimates we calculated above, the average cost to build an app like WhatsApp is $62,725.
That’s a much more realistic figure for you to use as a gauge for planning and budgeting purposes.
If you’re going to spend all of this money building an app, you need to make sure you’re able to turn a profit. Since they were acquired by Facebook, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly how much money WhatsApp makes.
The company’s old app monetization model was simple. In certain markets, it used to cost $1 to download, while in other areas the annual fee for using the app was $1. I know this seems sounds modest, but not when you scale that to 1.5 billion users.
In 2018, WhatsApp started experimenting with P2P payments in India.
This is definitely a monetization strategy that you can consider applying to your mobile messenger app as well. You can facilitate payments between app users and take a percent of the transaction or a fixed cost.
Currently, WhatsApp does not have any advertisements. But that doesn’t mean you can’t run ads on your messenger app.
If you’re going to monetize your app with advertisements, you should refer to my guide on the top mobile ad networks to get started.
In-app purchases are another viable monetization strategy. You could create stickers or other messaging add-ons that will entice people to buy by improving the user experience.
So how much does it cost to build an app like WhatsApp?
Well, according to our hour estimates and cost calculations, it’s roughly $60,000. But with that said, so many different factors need to be taken into consideration.
If you’re going to build a messenger app, you should definitely use WhatsApp as a reference. Go through their list of features and decide what you want to include in your app as well.
With that said, if your messenger app is identical to WhatsApp, why would someone download your app instead? You need to know your app’s value. It must provide some sort of alternative benefit to the user. Otherwise, it will be nearly impossible to compete with a giant like WhatsApp.
Find your niche. You don’t necessarily need 1.5 billion users to be profitable. Just scale your app users and have a monetization strategy in place.
To develop a messenger app as fast and cost-effective as possible, your best bet is to work with a dedicated development team. This will be much easier than hiring various roles individually.
How are you planning to develop and monetize your mobile messenger app?