After a succession of recent updates, WhatsApp is now reportedly testing its most significant update for some considerable time. In the last few weeks, we have seen improvements to WhatsApp’s group video chats, while QR codes and encrypted backups are in beta. But this next update is the most radical, stretching the bounds of end-to-end encryption and forcing decisions as to how WhatsApp handles the secure storage of our message and media histories. In the world of multiple devices and applications working seamlessly cross-platform, this will all be critical.
WhatsApp has led the popular messaging world for a decade now. It has built its staggering install base on simplicity and security. The app was the first “over the top” messaging platform that pulled texting away from the networks to cross-platform apps. Addressing the fragmented clunkiness and cost of SMS and the proprietary limitations of BBM, WhatsApp defined modern messaging.
But the world is changing and WhatsApp senses that. Most of us now run multiple messaging platforms on our phones. The notifications on our mobile devices mean we can manage all this with ease. While there are specialist alternatives, the likes of Signal, Telegram and Wickr, the real threat to WhatsApp’s dominance comes from its own Facebook stablemate Messenger, Apple’s iMessage, and the new Rich Communication Services (RCS) upgrade to ubiquitous SMS.
Those planning WhatsApp’s future—when not focusing on keeping Facebook at bay—are clearly aware of the risk to its dominance from the development of these other options, especially the likes of RCS and iMessage that can be built into the very operating systems of the phones on which they’re installed. The issue with those other options, of course, is the lack of interoperability between Android and iOS without reverting to the insecure clunkiness of SMS. The risk for WhatsApp, is that a rich, secure, updated SMS platform eventually resolves this.
The issue with WhatsApp, meanwhile, is its frustrating cross-platform limitations. Yes, there is a web viewed and various desktop front-ends, but when compared to the smooth running of Signal or Apple’s user-first iMessage, it falls totally flat. There is no iPad app, for example, no ability to run seamlessly on a tablet. And now, with Signal trying to shift from secure specialist to mainstream alternative, with Apple playing with iMessage functionality—editing sent texts and better desktop options, for example—WhatsApp needs to act.
And so, finally, it looks like we may have decent cross-platform WhatsApp option on the way. This has reportedly been in the works for more than a year. Linking devices rather than simply providing a remote view onto the phone’s messages. Having multiple devices open in tandem, synced. The basics, basically.
The ever reliable WABetaInfo reported earlier this month that linked devices was finally graduating from the development bench to some form of beta. No word yet on how this will work in practice, but it looks like there may be a need to transfer message history from one device to another, or to the cloud, requiring WiFi to do so. The general idea of linked devices itself, though, is tried and tested.
So what can we expect? Well, the challenge for WhatsApp is its need to combine simple but comprehensive functionality with solid end-to-end encryption. The messages on your device are decrypted, and so the web view WhatsApp provides is essentially a remote viewer onto a decrypted database. But that’s data heavy and requires you to keep you phone on.
The trick is to have multiple endpoints, each encrypted in transport, or a central repository, likely in the cloud, from which each endpoint can securely sync. Unless there is a duplicated copy of the message history, it will not be available. Unlike Android and iOS, WhatsApp doesn’t have an easy way to do this without using Apple or Google cloud services, paid for by its users, as a backend. Perhaps that’s what we will see, unless there’s a sync’d message history on every device.
The other critical update WhatsApp is finalizing is the encryption of user message and media history backups, stored in the cloud, using Android or iPhone services. Until this update rolls out, those backups are just copies of the decrypted database and have no inbuilt protection. This is a huge security vulnerability. Perhaps these updates are all linked, a secure backup part of a multiple linked device setup, perhaps there will be a central repository that can be accessed from multiple devices, rather than a backup—we will find out.
A previous WABetaInfo report showed an extension of the new encryption key messages we get now, referencing multiple devices. Clearly, this will now make that a reality. One of the primary “linked devices,” of course, will be iPads. It remains a frustration for many iOS users that they cannot use WhatsApp on their tablets without relying on the clunky web view. An iPad app has long been stuck somewhere between the rumour mill and the roadmap.
As WABetaInfo has reported, there is no release date as yet, although we can assume that all being well it will make an appearance in a small number of months. The latest report suggests the new functionality is now in test, and that is certainly further advanced than we have seen before—by some margin.
From now on WhatsApp is internally starting some important tests for the multi device feature.— WABetaInfo (@WABetaInfo) June 2, 2020
It’s not available yet and there isn’t a release date: it could be next two months, four months, six months 🤷🏻♂️.. but it’s really positive that they have started to test it on the whole.
Not everyone will make use of this update, of course. In fact, most users might well stick to using WhatsApp on a single phone. But tens of millions of us will delight in the added functionality that takes their end-to-end encrypted messaging platform to another level, offering all kinds of additional flexibility. Please hurry up.