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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum on the Company’s Latest Milestone: 500 Million Active Users

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum on the Company’s Latest Milestone: 500 Million Active Users


WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum on the Company’s Latest Milestone: 500 Million Active Users

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 11:00 AM PDT

When Facebook announced its stunning agreement to acquire messaging app WhatApp last February for $19 billion in stock, cash and restricted stock units, Mark Zuckerberg said that the startup was on track to reach a billion users. That pretty much explained his interest: It’s a figure that doesn’t come up often when discussing networked services other than…well, Facebook.

As of today, it’s official: WhatsApp is halfway there.

In a blog post today, it’s announcing that the app has 500 million users–not just people who registered, but ones who are active participants. I recently sat down with CEO and cofounder Jan Koum at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. to talk about the news.

Judging from its periodic statements over the past year, WhatsApp has been adding around 25 million new active users every month, a pace that isn't slowing. The 500 million people now on board send tens of billions of text messages a day, along with 700 million photos and 100 million videos.

“On one hand, we were kind of expecting it,” Koum says of reaching the half-billion mark. “We got to 200 million users, 300 million users, 400 million users. It was going to happen sooner or later. But we think it's an exciting number to share with the world and a good milestone to acknowledge what's all been organic growth."

In the U.S., WhatsApp is still probably best known as that company Facebook is in the process of buying. (The FTC signed off on the sale earlier this month–while emphasizing that WhatsApp must continue to abide by privacy promises it made to users–but other regulatory approvals are still pending internationally.) In much of the world, though, it's already the app all your friends and relatives are using instead of carrier-provided text messaging.

Koum says that the app’s torrid growth tracks with the boom of smartphones–especially Android models. As people in a country join the smartphone era, some of them get WhatsApp. And then their friends and family members do, too, and the service explodes.

WhatsApp’s Android version WhatsApp

Right now, "the four big countries are Brazil, Mexico, India and Russia,” he says. “People who never used computers, never used laptops, never used the Internet are signing up."

Rather than going after any particular country, Koum says, WhatsApp has always obsessed about the overall usage number. “We’re pretty confident that eventually we will a reach tipping point in the U.S. as well. Russia only tipped in the last six months. A switch flipped, and we took off.”

Though WhatsApp’s customer base may skew towards young people who like to share lots of quick messages and lots of photos, Koum says that it’s a mistake to assume that it’s just kids who are keeping the app growing. “We hear lots of stories where grandparents go to a store and buy a smartphone so they can keep in touch with kids and grandkids,” he says. That dynamic is helped by the app’s ridiculously easy setup–you don’t even have to create a user name or password–and features such as the ability to adjust the font size for easy readability.

The growth in smartphones isn’t enough to keep WhatsApp growing, however. There may be roughly two billion smartphones in the world, Koum notes, but between 500 million and one billion of them may be used without a data plan. In most cases, that’s because of cost, but the availability of Internet access isn’t a given everywhere.

"We take [connectivity] for granted in Silicon Valley, where you turn on your phone and see twenty different Wi-Fi networks,” he says. He told me how moved he’d been by a National Geographic photo showing people in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa standing on a beach with their phones in outstretched arms, trying to catch a stray wireless signal from neighboring Somalia, and says that he’s passionate about efforts such as Internet.org, a partnership between Facebook and mobile technology companies to bring Internet access to everybody, everywhere.

“We have no plans to change anything about how we execute.”Even in developed countries, “not everybody is on a data plan, which is unfortunate,” he says. So for the past two and a half years, WhatsApp has been busy partnering with wireless carriers around the world to offer affordable access to its service.

"We've done some really cool deals, and they're not all cookie-cutter," Koum explains. In India, you can sign up to get unlimited WhatsApp for 30 cents a month. In Hong Kong, you can buy a WhatsApp roaming pass. In Germany, there are WhatsApp-branded SIM cards, with unlimited WhatsApp service and starter credits for voice and data.

Rather than carriers looking at WhatsApp solely as a scary, disruptive force killing their ability to make money off text messaging, such offerings turn the service into a “win-win-win,” Koum says. “Users get unlimited WhatsApp. We get happy users who don't have to worry about data. Carriers get people willing to sign up for data plans."

The Future–and Oh Yeah, Facebook

For all of its growth, WhatsApp remains a famously lean operation: It got those 500 million active users with a team that only recently reached 60 staffers, for a ratio of over eight million users per employee. Koum says that the company doesn’t need to grow huge to serve even more folks. But “we do need more people–we’re actively hiring,” he says.

In particular, it’s beefing up its ability to provide customer support in more languages, including Portuguese, German, Ukranian, Polish and Romanian. “If anyone reading this article speaks multiple languages, they should apply,” he jokes.

When news of the Facebook acquisition broke, it inspired many people to worry about what it meant for the future of WhatsApp, whose business model has had a decidedly un-Facebookian slant in the past. The company makes money from customers–who pay 99 cents a year for service after the first year–and has been staunchly anti-advertising.

Both companies said at the time that WhatsApp would continue to be run independently and according to its existing principles, a point Koum stressed when I asked him about it.

“What makes our product work is the way we’re tightly focused on messaging and being an SMS replacement,” he says. The company plans to stick with that approach as it looks to “continuing to get to a billion users, and then two billion users. I think Facebook understands that, and Mark [Zuckerberg] understands that quite well. We have no plans to change anything about how we execute.”

As for competition from other messaging apps–and boy, is there a lot of it–Koum told me that some of WhatsApp’s rivals, such as Japan’s Line and China’s WeChat, are getting distracted from their core missions. People use WhatsApp, he says, to “keep in touch with each other, not movie stars or sports stars or random people you meet on the Internet. That's why we’re succeeding internationally.”

“We want to do one thing and do it really well. For us, that’s communications between people who are friends and relatives.”

30-Second Tech Trick: Delete Accounts You Don’t Use Anymore

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 10:51 AM PDT

Older Americans Are Buying Smartphones

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 10:04 AM PDT

America’s elders are getting in on the smartphone craze.

Fifty-one percent of Americans 55 and older own a smartphone, according to a new poll. That’s a 10% increase from early 2013 and marks the first time that a majority of all age groups have owned smartphones, according to the the Nielsen survey.

Seven out of 10 Americans now own smartphones, and 85% opt for them when shopping for a new phone.

Apple continues to reign as the largest smartphone manufacturer, with 42% of smartphone owners opting for Apple products, according to the survey. Most smartphones in the U.S. run on Google’s Android operating system (which works across devices made by a variety of manufacturers), and 19% are made by Samsung. BlackBerry devices are continuing to fall out of favor, and Windows Phone handsets only make up 3% of all American smartphones.

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‘Are Your Children Vaccinated?’ Is the New ‘Do You Have a Gun in the House?’

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:59 AM PDT

I try not to judge other parents. If you want your whole family to sleep together in one giant bed, it is none of my concern. If you feel like breastfeeding your kid until he’s in junior high school, go for it. If you don’t want to or can’t breastfeed, hey, formula is good too. To binky or not to binky? Maybe that is the question in your house, but I am positive you will make the right decision. Either way, I could really care less. Most of your parenting choices don’t affect me or my children. Having a loaded weapon in your house does. It has the potential to do serious harm to, and possibly kill, my child. The same is true when you decide not to immunize your children against preventable infectious diseases.

My kids are five and two. They have gone through most of their early childhood vaccinations. With all the coverage in the news lately about the return of the measles and the mumps (seriously, mumps is a thing again?), I called the pediatrician to confirm that their immunizations were up to date. I found out that I had somehow missed my two year old’s second MMR vaccination. Just in case you don’t know, those two “Ms” stand for measles and mumps! Crud… I was an accidental anti-vaxxer! It was an oversight that I quickly remedied. That was a close one! What if my little dude had come in contact with one of the unvaccinated!? Chances are, nothing. But maybe, something. And if it was something, that thing could have been catastrophic.

I’ve been wondering lately if I have any friends who are anti-vaxxers. Some of the dads in my playdate group are kind of out there: musicians, actors, and such. One is a big conspiracy theory guy. Another is active in the Occupy movement. Who knows what kind of wacky stuff they’re up to? Maybe they hopped aboard the trendy not-getting-your-kids-immunized train. I brought it up with a couple of them. Luckily, no true nut jobs. (Well, about this issue anyway. They’re an odd bunch, but in the best ways.)

There is one dad who is not fully on board with vaccines, deeming some of them unnecessary. He felt that the reason a lot of vaccines are required by schools is because the state has a financial interest in…I don’t know…their sale and distribution or something. It was the conspiracy guy, and I had kind of a hard time following his logic. He also does not agree with the recommended vaccination schedule, asserting that getting too many at a time weakens a child’s immune system. (A reasonable-sounding concern some might think, though there is absolutely no evidence supporting it.) But, even if somewhat grudgingly, he vaccinates his daughter. Whew! We can still hang out; our children can still be friends.

I’m sort of joking…but the truth is, I’m not sure what I would do if I found out that one of my playgroup buddies was an anti-vaxxer. I really like those dudes! And most of the kids have known each other so long, they view each other as second cousins.

At this point — especially since I rectified my earlier negligence — my children are out of the danger zone. Not all vaccines are 100% effective, but I feel relatively safe. Yet, I remain rankled by the anti-vaxxers. There is still a chance that my children could be a part of the unlucky few who are vaccine resistant. Though the risk to my children is small, there are other children who are too young for certain vaccines. Anti-vaxxers are unnecessarily putting those kids in harm’s way (not to mention the potential danger to their own offspring). They are, in fact, banking on others getting vaccinated to protect their own children from the spread of disease. It just seems so selfish. Of course, they believe that they are doing what is best for their kids and are likely discounting the exposure of other children.

I understand that injecting something into your child that you do not fully comprehend is scary. Most parents are not scientists or doctors. I’m certainly not. I also understand that nothing I say is going to convince anti-vaxxers that vaccinations are safe; their minds are already made up. Other people, who are much smarter than I am, have made a pretty compelling case for the efficacy of immunizations. Yet the anti-vaxxer movement seems to be on the rise. If you are on the fence, I ask only that you don’t just do your “research” on anti-vaxxer websites. That is not really research; it’s confirmation.

Not vaccinating your children is that odd family decision that has potential real life consequences outside your home. It should come with a certain set of responsibilities. If you have a gun in your house, you are expected to safely secure it. If you have decided not to immunize your children, it is incumbent on you to make sure other children are not exposed to an unnecessary threat of infectious disease. It may seem harsh to equate an innocent child with a loaded weapon, but if that child comes into contact with a virus he is not immunized against, the metaphor is apt. Most of the time, because of herd immunization, unvaccinated children are not exposed to these diseases. They are, therefore, harmless: unloaded and secured. As we have seen with recent outbreaks, however, the safety of the herd does not hold up when too many people opt out.

If you are worried about anti-vaxxers in your playgroup, you need to find out for yourself and not wait for other parents to bring it up. It is not a topic you should debate (trust me, you will not persuade your anti-vaxxer friend to immunize her child), but it is important to have the information. If there are unimmunized children in the group, consult your pediatrician about what increased risks there may be to your child. Then, you can make an informed decision about what is best for you and your family.

Lesser blogs at Amateur Idiot/Professional Dad. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter (@amateuridiot).

Indian Politicians Continue to Rule TIME 100 Readers’ Poll in Final Voting Day

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:55 AM PDT

As the TIME 100 readers’ poll nears its close, Indian politicians Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi have maintained their lead in a heated race for the winner.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Aam Aadmi Party leader Kejriwal led Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate for prime minister Modi in terms of percentage of “yes” votes, while Modi also had a significantly higher share of “no” votes against him. Singer Katy Perry sits in third, followed by Justin Bieber, who has managed to edge out transgender actress Laverne Cox for fourth.

Following close behind Cox are Benedict Cumberbatch, Beyonce Knowles, and Rihanna. Aside from the Indian political race at the top, which mirrors the actual elections taking place currently in the country, entertainment figures appear to be dominating the top spots. TIME’s Person of the Year, Pope Francis is currently sitting in the 25th spot.

Though the final TIME 100 list of the most influential people of the year worldwide is ultimately chosen by the editors, TIME seeks the input of readers in an online poll.

Don't like what you see? Voting's still open–if not for long. Polls close at 11:59 p.m. on April 22. The final winner will be announced on April 23. We'll announce our official TIME 100 list on April 24.

Cast your vote in these categories: World, U.S. Politics, Business & Tech, Culture & Fashion, Movies & TV, Music, Media, and Sports.

See the results below.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal Pens Blog On How He Survived Being Fired

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:41 AM PDT

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has admitted having a crisis of identity after getting fired from the U.S. Army by Barack Obama in 2010, saying he bounced back by thinking creatively about the skills he learned in 38-plus years as a soldier.

"There is only one Army in which you serve," McChrystal wrote in a blog posted on LinkedIn Tuesday. "When that identity is gone, it is gone forever. For me, it was gone in an instant, and on terms that I could never have imagined."

McChrystal was the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan when, in June 2010, Rolling Stone ran an article depicting McChrystal and aides poking fun at top civilian leadership in the United States, including Vice President Joe Biden. In the article, by the late Michael Hastings, McChrystal says Obama looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" when in the presence of military brass.

"I boarded a flight immediately, returning from Afghanistan to Washington, D.C. to address the issue with our Nation's leadership. Less than 24 hours later I walked out of the Oval Office and in an instant, a profession that had been my life's passion and focus came to an end," McChrystal wrote Tuesday.

At the time of the incident, McChrystal apologized publicly for the incident, saying "I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened." But in his LinkedIn post Tuesday, the general describes his portrayal in Hastings' piece as being as "unfamiliar as it was unfair," suggesting he now disputes the article.

McChrystal says he recovered from the shock of the incident by re-thinking the skills he had amassed in his decades as a soldier. "Like leaders in many walks of life, my business has been to serve with, and for, others," he said. "By focusing on this simple truth, and allowing it to guide my decisions through a difficult time, this curveball ultimately opened as many doors as it closed." Since leaving the Army McChrystal has started a company, hit the speaking circuit and taught at Yale.

The Earth Is Changing Rapidly. Can We Change Too?

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:40 AM PDT

I had the chance to see the Grand Canyon last week for the first time, and I can tell you this: it is really big. So big, in fact, that I led my partner on an endless walk along the rim, searching for the entrance a trail that would take us some of the way down the canyon. It turned out that I misread the map scale just a tiny bit. I think she may have forgiven me by now.

Of course, there’s more to the Grand Canyon than its sheer size: Its exposed rock reveals some 2 billion years of Earth’s geologic history, a span of time that is unfathomable by human beings (our species Homo sapiens is about 0.00005% as old as the oldest rock found in the Canyon). And even that time period covers less than half of the Earth’s age. Our planet is ancient, and the only constant over the course of its 4.54 billion-year history has been change—albeit change on a scale that almost always unfolds far too slow for us to realize it. If the Earth seems as solid as the ground beneath our feet, that’s only because we haven’t been around long enough to see just how unstable it really is.

That’s something to keep in mind as we celebrate the 45th Earth Day. Human civilization has flourished over the past ten thousand or so years largely because our species has been fortunate enough to arise during a Goldilocks (not too warm, not too cold) climatic period known as the Holocene. It’s an age that has proven ideal for agriculture and other activities that now support a human population of 7 billion-plus. But it hasn’t always been this way, as a new study that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates.

A team led by Yale University scientists used a new method to determine temperatures in the Earth’s past, measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells found in Antarctica. The researchers found that during the Eocene epoch—about 40 to 50 million years ago—temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 63 F (17 C), with an average of 14 C (57 F). That’s far above the mean annual temperature of Antarctica’s interior today, which registers at a frosty -70 F (-57 C), and closer to the kinds of temperatures you’d see in today’s San Francisco. Seawater around parts of Antarctica was even warmer, a balmy 72 F (22 C)—or about the same temperature as the tropical seas around Florida today.

If there were people living 40 million years ago—there weren’t, FYI—they could have been snorkeling off the coast of Antarctica’s Ross Island.

Why? Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere during the Eocene were much, much higher, perhaps as high as 2,000 ppm or more. Even though human beings have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere by the gigaton for decades, that’s still far higher than current levels, which stand at a little above 400 ppm. But even that increase has helped global temperatures rise by about 1.53 F (0.85 C) since 1880, and despite 45 Earth Days since the first in 1970, global carbon emissions just keep on growing, reaching a record 36 billion metric tons in 2013.

As Brad Plumer puts it over at Vox, our chances of keeping global temperature increase below 3.6 F (2 C)—a figure governments around the world have adopted as a climate change red line—seem vanishingly small:

If you look at the current rapid rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions, we're on pace to blow past the 2°C limit by mid-century — and hit 4°C or more by the end. That's well above anything once deemed “dangerous.” Getting back on track for 2°C would, at this point, entail the sort of drastic emissions cuts usually associated with economic calamities, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. And we'd have to repeat those cuts for decades.

Needless to say, that’s unlikely. Barring some major political or technological revolution, our Earth will likely change more in the decades to come than it has for the entire lifespan of human civilization—and that change almost certainly won’t be for the better. As the PNAS study shows, the climate we think of as stable—the “long summer” of humanity—has been drastically different over the course of Earth’s deep past. The Earth will change. The question for the Earth Days to come is whether we can change, too.

Tilt Interface for Amazon’s Rumored 3D Phone Sounds Neat, and Hopefully Not Aggravating

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:37 AM PDT

One thing that’s never been clear about Amazon’s rumored 3D head-tracking smartphone is how it would rise above cheap gimmickry and actually prove useful.

Now, Boy Genius Report has a possible explanation:

By tilting the handset in different directions while the device is in use, Amazon's interface will display additional information on the screen without the user having to touch or tap anything. This will not only be a point of differentiation for the company's phone lineup, but also a way for larger devices such as Amazon's upcoming 4.7-inch flagship phone to be operated more comfortably with one hand.

BGR’s “trusted sources” provide some examples of how the Amazon phone could work: You might be able to tilt the phone in the Kindle app to bring up Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which provides supplemental information about what you’re reading. You could potentially tilt in the messaging app to bring up a panel of camera options, or tilt in the maps app to see Yelp ratings atop your search results. Even the phone’s menu system could be tilt-based, letting users slide a panel of options onto the screen by twisting the phone.

The immediate concern here is that all the tilt detection would become an aggravation. You wouldn’t want a bunch of menus to pop out of nowhere just because you shifted your weight.

But I very much like the idea of tilting a big phone to bring far-flung elements within reach. Larger smartphone screens are wonderful for many reasons, but do require some contortion of the hands and thumbs for one-handed use. Being able to tilt a distant button into thumb range could be just the solution that no one’s thought of yet–as long as it actually works.

Watch Emma Stone Totally Own Andrew Garfield for a Sexist Spiderman Comment

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:34 AM PDT

At a recent Q&A promoting The Amazing Spider-Man 2, actress Emma Stone calmly (and effectively) called out her co-star Andrew Garfield for a comment he didn’t seem to realize came across as sexist.

When a kid asked Garfield how Spiderman got his costume, the actor explained that the superhero sewed it himself — which, he said, is “kind of a feminine thing to do.” Stone, who happens to be Garfield’s girlfriend, interrupts him to ask, “It’s feminine how?”

Garfield immediately goes on the defensive, replying, “It’s amazing how you took that as an insult.” Stone remains calm, saying, “No, I’m not taking that as an insult, I’m asking how it’s feminine.”

Watch above as a very frazzled Garfield begins to backpedal.

Here Are the Funniest Cities in America

Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:30 AM PDT

Researchers say Chicago is the funniest city in America, according to an article in the New York Times‘s Sunday Review section. Below are the 10 funniest cities, according to the authors of The Humor Code, Peter McGraw, director of the University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab, and Joel Warner:

1. Chicago
2. Boston
3. Atlanta
4. Washington, DC
5. Portland, Ore.
6. New York City
7. Los Angeles
8. Denver
9. San Francisco
10. Seattle

Based on interviews with experts in the funny business, the Times argues Chicago first secured its place at the top back in 1914, with Carl Sandburg’s humorous poem “Chicago”, while The Second City improv troupe (which launched Stephen Colbert) solidified it. Portland, Oregon, is on the list because of Fred Armisen’s IFC comedy Portlandia.

At the bottom of the ranking is Fort Worth, TX, followed by:

49. Jacksonville, FL
48. Miami, FL
47. San Antonio, TX
46. Arlington, TX
45. Tulsa, OK
44. Virginia Beach, VA
43. Las Vegas, NV
42. Tucson, AZ
41. El Paso, TX
40. Fresno, CA

Here’s the methodology for the “humor algorithm” that produced this lineup, according to the book’s website (which boasts the full list of the 50 funniest cities):

  • Frequency of visits to Cheezburger comedy websites, such as Lolcats and FAIL Blog
  • Number of comedy clubs per square mile in each city
  • Traveling comedians' ratings of each city's comedy-club audiences
  • Number of famous comedians born in each city, divided by city population
  • Number of famous funny tweeters living in each city, divided by city population
  • Number of comedy radio stations available in each city
  • Frequency of humor-related web searches originating in each city

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