Facebook's $16 Billion WhatsApp Plan to Conquer the World

Image: A Somali man browses the internet on his mobile phone at a beach along the Indian Ocean coastline in Mogadishu
A Somali man browses the Internet on his mobile phone at a beach along the Indian Ocean coastline in Somalia's capital Mogadishu.FEISAL OMAR / Reuters file

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To understand Facebook’s $16 billion purchase of WhatsApp, zoom out — way out.

The social network’s monster purchase of a messaging app with 450 million members (and growing) isn't about conquering mobile. It's about conquering the world.

Though it’s received little attention, the answer is right there on CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s own Facebook page. “Over the next few years, we're going to work hard to help WhatsApp grow and connect the whole world,” he posted Wednesday, announcing the impending purchase.

Way back about six months ago, Zuckerberg introduced Internet.org, a Facebook-led initiative to bring the mobile Internet to the two-thirds of the planet’s population who are currently without access.

“We now connect more than 1 billion people, but to connect the next 5 billion we must solve a much bigger problem: The vast majority of people don't have access to the Internet," Zuckerberg posted on Aug. 21, 2013, along with the Internet.org mission statement, "Is connectivity a human right?"

“If the mission of Internet.org is to offer access to the Internet for all, it’s important to note where this access is coming from, Ian Chee, chief strategy officer at MRY, a digital brand consulting agency, told NBC News.

“Social networks will increasingly not be desktop-first experiences and Facebook knows that,” Chee said. “Research is showing that mobile is where people are accessing content social or otherwise now more than ever; and even more so in developing countries. In a transient world, Whatsapp is simply another doorway for Facebook to tap into this burgeoning user behavior.”

Americans often have an ambivalent relationship to Facebook, occasionally rejoicing over myriad reports that usage is flattening in the U.S. Meanwhile, the social network is in a fierce race with Google, each tech giant fighting to be first to plant its flag in parts of the developing world that the Internet is just beginning to penetrate.

"We now connect more than 1 billion people, but to connect the next 5 billion we must solve a much bigger problem."

Google’s strategy to bring the Internet to areas without infrastructure includes balloon satellites carrying 3G connections. The company also recently acquired several companies that are at work developing robots.

Facebook’s Internet.org strategy is mobile. In undeveloped areas, mobile devices are the closest many people get to digital communication. Facebook is already partnered with mobile tech giants Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, among others. Together they are developing inexpensive smartphones and economic apps that require less data to run. Working with governments to streamline development is also on the docket.

“Sure, the Internet can be life changing for rural communities,” trading consultant Asif Imtiaz wrote about the Internet.org launch. “However, it will also mean more revenues for these companies, making it a win-win deal for both consumers and providers.”

Fortune cited two unnamed sources on Thursday who said that Google offered a $10 billion bid for WhatsApp at an unspecified time.

WhatsApp joins Facebook’s Internet.org party with free messaging, as opposed to increasingly pricey SMS messaging, and while it may be a little-known app in the U.S., it has a stronger foothold than Facebook in many parts of the world.

Facebook’s $16 billion check buys “a different audience in different parts of the world where Facebook may not have as much penetration,” Brian Blau, research director, consumer tech & markets at Garnter, said on Thursday.“Getting more users engaged in Facebook is really one of their main goals.”

Facebook purchase of the popular photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion drew gasps in 2012. A year later, Facebook's the company mounted a failed $3 billion bid for SnapChat.

The WhatsApp purchase is bigger than all that.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg wrote, “We also expect that WhatsApp will add to our efforts for Internet.org, our partnership to make basic internet services affordable for everyone.”

Facebook isn't going anywhere. It's going everywhere.