WhatsApp third-party chats show company preparing for EU law, as Apple resists


A new WhatsApp third-party chats feature has been spotted in the latest app code, indicating that the app is preparing to comply with European law on messaging interoperability.

Apple is so far pushing back on suggestions that iMessage would be subject to the same antitrust law, making the unlikely-sounding argument that it doesn’t have enough European users to count …

What is messaging interoperability all about?

If you’re a tech startup, and want to launch a new messaging app, you could create the most amazing app ever to hit the market – but nobody would use it, because all our family and friends use WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger, or iMessage. We need to use the apps that everyone else in our lives use.

That’s one of the problems the European Union wants to solve with a new law, the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The law is specifically aimed at tech giants that are deemed to be dominant in their respective fields, and requires them to make it easier for startups to compete.

For messaging apps, they need to offer “messaging interoperability.” That is, they need to allow a WhatsApp user to be able to exchange messages with a Facebook Messenger user, for example.

Companies found large enough to be impacted by the law have six months to comply.

WhatsApp is preparing to comply

WAbetainfo has spotted new code in the latest version of WhatsApp indicating that it is preparing to introduce messaging interoperability, with a few feature called Third-Party Chats.

As you can see in this screenshot, WhatsApp is working on a new section dedicated to the new regulations. Since it is still in development, this section is still not ready, it appears empty and it’s not accessible to users, but its title confirms to us that they are now working on it. 

The site says it understands that end-to-end encryption will be preserved when messaging between competing apps, which is no small feat.

What about iMessage?

The law applies to “dominant” messaging apps, which is defined as those that have at least 45 million active users across the 450M people in EU countries.

Apple claims that iMessage does not, and therefore doesn’t have to support messaging interoperability.

On the face of it, Apple’s claim appears extremely unlikely. iOS has about a 32% share of the EU market, meaning that around 144M people have access to iMessage – more than three times the threshold for the law to apply.

However, the iPhone maker may be arguing that iMessage is not in regular use by most European users. Although that too would seem surprising, it is certainly true that WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are more popular apps, since those can be used by both iOS and Android users.

The EU is currently investigating Apple’s claim, which will require the Cupertino company to hand over usage stats – though we don’t currently know whether these will become public.

It has already been confirmed that the App Store is subject to a different element of the DMA, meaning that Apple will be legally required to allow third-party app stores, and the company is preparing for this.

Image: BoliviaInteligente/Unsplash

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