Instant messengers like WhatsApp dominate the day-to-day online communication for most Internet users. So it’s no surprise that the Facebook subsidiary has provided a new tool to allow its users to chat on their desktops too. A year ago, they brought out WhatsApp Web. In May 2016, WhatsApp brought out a native desktop app for Windows and Mac OS. We’ll explain how it works.
If you’re looking for a WhatsApp alternative, you’ve probably already noticed the large number of messaging app offerings out there — including Telegram, Spike, Threema, Signal, Ginlo, and Wire, for example. Unlike WhatsApp, most of these alternatives boast of being open source, ad-free, and even more aspects.
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|Available for||Encryption||No. of users||Cost|
|Signal||iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux||End-to-end||Unknown||Free|
|Telegram||iOS, Android, Windows Phone, macOS, Windows, Linux||Client-to-server and end-to-end (in secret chats)||Over 500 million||Free|
|Threema||iOS, Android||End-to-end||Over 8 million||$3.99 (App Store, Google Play Store & AppGallery)|
|Viber||iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux||End-to-end||More than 800 million||Free|
|Spike||iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Web||AES-256||At least 100,000 teams||Free|
|Ginlo||iOS, Android, for business customers also macOS, Windows and Linux||End-to-end||Unknown||Free (for private users)|
|Wire||iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux, Browsers||End-to-end||Unknown||Free|
Apps like WhatsApp: In detail
Telegram is a company run by the Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, famous for founding the Russian alternative to Facebook, VKontakte. Their WhatsApp alternative has been developed even further: the service is cloud-based, meaning that Telegram users can access their messages and content on a variety of mobile devices as well as on their computer. A further advantage is the limitless, large-scale file sharing. WhatsApp, on the other hand, puts limits on the amount of data and file size that you can receive and send, based on the capacity of your device – usually a smartphone.
Telegram is considered a very secure application. The developers offer two different forms of encryption for users: for all private and group chats, there’s a server-client encryption, which encrypts messages on the way from sender to server and from server to recipient. In what are known as secret chats, Telegram offers an end-to-end encryption,which ensures that only the sender and the recipient can read a message. There’s also a setting for the secret chat mode that ensures the message will delete itself after a certain time. The message and/or content sent also can’t be copied from the chat or forwarded to anyone else, and if the sender chooses to delete it, then it will also be deleted from the recipient’s device.
It’s important to mention that the latest version of WhatsApp now also offers end-to-end encryption for all messages. Since this type of encryption isn’t possible for cloud-based content, Telegram makes a compromise here regarding data protection for greater user-friendliness. Users who do not like this and the non-transparent corporate structure of the messenger would be better off looking for another alternative to WhatsApp.
|✔ Unlimited amounts of files can be sent||✘ Little transparency about the company itself|
|✔ Open source||✘ Stores metadata|
|✔ Cloud-based, access from different end devices||✘ Cloud affects data protection|
|✔ Self-destructing messages|
Signal is, like most alternatives to WhatsApp, relatively unknown, and its developers even more so. The Signal creators’ Open Whisper Systems have delivered end-to-end encryption software with open source code and have been used by WhatsApp, Telegram, and more, to develop their own encryption. Edward Snowden uses Signal, and the team around cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Open Whisper Systems, enjoys an excellent reputation among IT security experts. Open Whisper Systems is financed entirely by scholarship grants and donations, so it doesn’t rely on any advertising.
As might be expected from the developers of the most famous encryption technology available for messengers, security is at the forefront of everything Signal does. Both private and group chats are secured with end-to-end encryption, and telephone numbers are transmitted anonymously (“hashed”) to the server. In contrast, users are required to share their contact list with Signal when they sign up. Signal hardly stores any metadata, especially no information about who communicates with whom. The only thing the app can store is whether someone uses the service.
For security reasons, Signal offers no backup function, unlike many other apps like WhatsApp. And while some of the alternatives to WhatsApp we’ve discussed i.e. Threema allow the export of chats on all operating systems, Signal only offers an export function for Android. This means it is possible to back up content manually to another device, but this takes significantly longer and requires much more effort than a typical backup. The advantage is that the chance of the backup landing in the wrong hands is a lot slimmer.
|✔ Open source||✘ No general backup option (only backup via export for Android)|
|✔ Self-destructing and disappearing messages||✘ Comparatively few users|
|✔ PIN lock function||✘ Phone number is required for registration|
|✔ Both encrypted messages and phone calls|
|✔ Hardly stores any metadata|
Threema is a messaging app from Switzerland. Like most alternatives to WhatsApp the app is very secure when it comes to data. Like WhatsApp, Threema uses end-to-end encryption for all messages. In addition, messages are deleted from the server as soon as they are successfully transmitted. Additionally, Threema manages groups and contact lists only on the mobile device, not on the server. When Threema synchronizes contacts from your phone’s contact list, they are only transferred to the server anonymously (“hashed”). In addition, unlike WhatsApp, Threema does not store metadata about who is communicating with whom and when. This WhatsApp alternative takes user data protection much more seriously than its competition does. Threema’s servers are located in Switzerland, where they are subject to strict data protection regulations.
In addition to data protection, Threema also impresses with some useful features. For example, Threema offers a voting feature that enables users to easily create surveys. A question to a group of friends, such as where to meet in the evening, no longer leads to many different answers, since the person asking the question can immediately specify a certain number of options for which the other participants in the group chat can then vote. Threema also offers a PIN lock feature for private chats.
The catch with Threema is not only — as with any app similar to WhatsApp — the relatively low number of users, but also the fact that the messaging app is not free. In the app store or the Threema store, you have to buy one or more licenses for a small fee. In the Threema store, you can buy the Android version via PayPal or with Bitcoins.
|✔ Encrypted phone calls are also possible||✘ Not free|
|✔ Linking with email or cell phone number is optional||✘ Comparatively few users|
|✔ Open source||✘ Messages can’t self-destruct (but are deleted from the server)|
|✔ No advertising|
|✔ PIN lock function|
|✔ Company headquarters in Switzerland (where strict data protection guidelines apply)|
|✔ Hardly stores any metadata|
|✔ Practical voting feature|
The messenger app Viber was released in 2010 and bought by the Japanese online company Rakuten four years later, which is why it is now called Rakuten Viber. In addition to the offer for private individuals, there is also a business variant of the app, which is advertised using success stories from well-known brands such as Coca-Cola and FC Barcelona.
Viber has various features. Besides the usual message exchange including emojis, you can also make voice calls and video chats. If the conversation turns out to have more participants than expected that’s not a problem. The service enables group chats of up to 250 people. Another advantage of this messaging service is the data protection. It is possible to set up messages that self-destruct so that they automatically disappear after being read. End-to-end encryption also ensures that all chats are protected from third party access at all times — including Viber itself.
However, the messaging service also has some down sides. It can be downloaded for free, but unlike other apps, it is not ad-free. It even boasts “Rakuten Advertising” where companies can reach a large number of potential customers by placing their ads on Viber. Another disadvantage of Viber is that free communication can only take place between owners of the app. So if you want to call someone who doesn’t have the app installed, it will only work if they have previously purchased the fee-based VoIP service “Viber Out”. Worldwide calling is then possible for $5.99 per month.
|✔ End-to-encryption||✘ Advertisements|
|✔ Option to make messages self-destruct||✘ Phone calls are free only with other Viber users|
|✔ Group chat with up to 250 participants|
|✔ Fun features such as emojis and Viber games|
Spike is a dialog-based email app, designed primarily as a collaboration tool but also works well as a high-quality WhatsApp alternative, thanks to its group-oriented chat feature. Developed by an Israeli software company, the classic email inbox is transformed into a modern dialog platform that doesn’t require complicated mail elements like subject lines or signatures. Your own email account remains the primary fixed point, which is why registering with Spike doesn’t require you to provide a personal phone number, unlike many other apps like WhatsApp.
Groups chats on Spike are much like WhatsApp group chats. They can be created instantly, and any other Spike users can be added to a group. Again, the only requirement for use is providing an email address. After joining a group, all members can exchange real-time messages that can be read by everyone. You can create as many groups as you want, however there is a limit of ten groups in the free basic version.
Of course, you can also exchange one-on-one private messages with Spike in either text form or as voice messages. Additionally, Spike can be used to make video calls. The Spike team really prioritizes data protection, which is why all data is automatically encrypted before transmission using AES-256 and is stored encrypted on the servers. Each message receives its own unique key.
One of the biggest advantages Spike has is that the communication tool can be used, not just through the cross-platform web app but also through native apps for iOS, Android, Windows, and macOS. Once the account is set up, private and group conversations can easily be tracked and held from any device. All versions of Spike are free for private use – anyone wishing to use Spike commercially must subscribe to a paid monthly subscription.
|✔ Free of charge for private use||✘ Little transparency about the company itself|
|✔ Can be used without specifying a mobile number||✘ Basic version allows a maximum of ten different group chats|
|✔ Cross-platform (web and desktop/mobile apps)||✘ Basic version does not include the option to call more than one person|
|✔ All data is transmitted and stored with unique AES-256 encryption|
The messenger service Ginlo is operated by the company of the same name ginlo.net, which is based in Germany. For a while, the fate of Ginlo was unclear because its developer, Brabbler AG, had to file for bankruptcy in 2019. However, the service has since continued to operate thanks to the efforts of Brabbler co-founder Karsten Schramm.
Like most apps similar to WhatsApp, Ginlo also enables its users to send encrypted messages and files — free of charge and without advertising. Users can further increase the protection of their own data by scanning a QR code when meeting a contact in person, therefore verifying their identity.
Self-destructing messages are a special feature. Pictures, videos, and chats can be automatically removed as soon as the recipient has seen them. It is also possible to send messages at a predefined time. To do this, you simply set the desired sending time in advance. Another special feature of the app is that users can find out about the latest news via content channels.
The app is available in a free version for private users and in a variant for business customers. Businesses have the option of having the app’s design customized to their own brand. Unlike private users, business customers can download versions for Mac, Windows, and Linux in addition to the Apple and Android versions.
|✔ End-to-end encryption||✘ No phone calls|
|✔ Verification of personal contacts||✘ Phone number is required for registration|
|✔ Self-destructive messages||✘ Low user numbers|
|✔ Messages can be scheduled|
|✔ Business solution for companies|
The rather new WhatsApp alternative Wire was founded in 2012 and released two years later. The company has not yet published user figures, but due to many people not being aware of the messaging service, it can be assumed that there are currently still fewer users than with the other apps similar to WhatsApp. Like Threema, the company responsible, Wire Swiss GmbH, has its headquarters in Switzerland — but most of the technical development of the messaging service takes place in Berlin, Germany. There’s also an office in San Francisco.
Like other messaging services, Wire also offers platform independence and end-to-end encryption. Another plus point is that you can make group calls with the app thanks to voice-over-IP technology. In addition, Wire was founded by Skype co-founder Janus Friis. There, too, the phone calls are tap-proof.
However, the app stores metadata just like Telegram — including, for example, various user profile and device information, as can be read in the “Wire Privacy Whitepaper”. In addition, you’re advised to be cautious with third-party functions such as YouTube or SoundCloud. This is because the data that users generate when sending such content falls under the data protection provisions of the respective third-party providers. So if you want to avoid disclosing information about your usage behavior, it is better not to use these options.
|✔ Subsidiaries in Germany, Switzerland, and San Francisco||✘ Low user numbers|
|✔ Cross-platform||✘ Stores metadata|
|✔ Modern design|
|✔ Group calls possible|
|✔ Open source|
Alternatives to WhatsApp: can they compete?
The biggest disadvantage of all these apps like WhatsApp is definitely the comparatively low user rate with some of the options. It’s not only difficult, but also unappealing to first download and install an app and then try to convince your group of friends to switch to this messaging service. And it’s equally frustrating if you’re excluded from social or business discussions because the entire company is on WhatsApp and using it to have big group chats.
But if security and data protection are important to you, then this shouldn’t matter at all. There’s no reason not to install multiple instant messenger apps. Multiple apps can be installed without any problems, and the notifications all appear next to each other on the smartphone’s home screen. In addition, the more often you use messenger apps that do not store metadata means that the existing data won’t result in a coherent, reliable usage profile. And perhaps, over time, you will gradually convince your friends and colleagues to use the secure apps.
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