WhatsApp Group Chat Is Here, But Lacks the Ambition of Its Peers

WhatsApp group chat lets you group video call four people.

It’s an understatement, but Facebook is an ambitious outfit. So, too, is its chief instant messaging app, Facebook Messenger. Instagram wants to be Snapchat, and that counts as an ambition as well. That ambition, however, doesn’t seem to run right through the tech giant’s stable of social media tools.

WhatsApp, for instance, doesn’t seem to be as obsessed with adding more and more and more to its list of features. Facebook’s leaders used their F8 Developer Conference to announce WhatsApp group chat over video was on the way back in early May, and the service is now slowly being rolled out across the WhatsApp world, beginning with the Beta testing crowd on both iOS and Android. (Don’t worry about updating your WhatsApp version, this rollout is a server-side affair which will switch on region-by-region once it progresses beyond the Beta phase). If you’re a WhatsApp fan, however, the new group video chat feature doesn’t seem to be worth getting too excited about. The app was far from being the center of attention at F8, and what we’ve seen from the earliest Beta users shows a limited call capacity and few remarkable features.

The takeaway is that you’ll soon be able to make group video calls through WhatsApp. The downside is it could’ve been a lot more fun.

How Many WhatsApp Group Video Callers?

WhatsApp is used by a lot of people. Facebook revealed during the F8 conference that each day 450 million users share a story on the app and 65 billion messages are sent through its network. That’s the point of WhatsApp: everybody has it and everybody uses it. Like its parent company, the app draws its strength and relevance from its user numbers, which makes the small number of people who will able to share a live video call so disappointing.

Four. That’s all. Just four people will be able to get together face-to-face once the group chat feature rolls out for all users over the coming months–and the earliest live images reveal a fairly generic interface with few design elements. Hundreds of millions of users sending billions of messages, and only four can share a video chat? Four is only one more than you’d need to even qualify as a group.

By comparison, stablemate Facebook Messenger can accommodate up to 50 people at once. That’s the right amount for an ambitious app that wants to take up every spare moment of your life. Even Snapchat, which is falling behind the Facebook crowd, will launch its new group call feature with a maximum occupancy of 16.

Why so small a number?

Streamlined Video Calling

WhatsApp users aren’t alone in being granted so few video callers. Instagram, too, is getting a group call function, and its numbers will also be capped at just four. The Instagram feature, however, is part of a much bigger overhaul. That app will be expanded to include augmented reality filters, song sharing through Spotify, and a feature that will let you continue to browse Instagram while on a video call.

WhatsApp’s shortcomings seem to be more by longterm design. Google and Apple have intentionally kept their video calling apps down to the bare minimum to make them more user friendly. Both Duo and FaceTime are strict one-on-one affairs that just add a visual aspect to a standard phone call–and we’ve previously criticized both for a lack of creativity.

Perhaps simple, no-frills calling is what Facebook wants out of WhatsApp. The sheer volume of daily messages making their way through the service suggests users regard it as more of a text app than a video caller anyhow. Maybe the video call function is there just to keep people from switching to another app if they want to move from message to face-to-face contact. Perhaps the limit on video chat participants is merely a reflection of the screen limits imposed on a mobile app–things do get eye-straining once you move past the number four. Whatever the internal reasoning, it would have been nice to see Facebook get more adventurous with one of its flagship apps.

What We’re Hoping for from WhatsApp Group Chat

The F8 conference did have some other, smaller news for WhatsApp users. There are a bunch of new stickers on the way and some improvements to the business version of the app. Hardly exciting fare. What would have really turned user’s heads–aside from a larger potential online video party–is a way to take advantage of the breadth of the WhatsApp network within a video call.

We’re familiar with the concept of groups, in which our nearest and dearest are networked together in a private circle to keep us all in touch. Couldn’t notifications be sent out within a group to let people know there’s a video call going on they might like to join? Or, similarly, what about a way to chain live group video chats together? No one’s done that before, and it could make it easier to gather friends together organically before or after an event.

And finally, there must be an alternative to the Brady Bunch-style tiled chat window layout. More and more, we’ve seen one-at-a-time active speaker calling (as with Google Hangouts), and we’ve seen call windows shaped like floating bubbles (as with join.me), but no one has found a solution to the problem that group video calls pose when made on small smartphone screens. There’s a big prize awaiting the app that can make six or more video chatters look like more than postage stamps.

Sadly, it appears WhatsApp won’t be that app. Nor does it seem it will offer anything new in the group video chat room. If you need to speak with a bunch of friends at once, you’re better off going over to the Messenger side of the Facebook stable–that app has some real ambition.

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