The best WhatsApp alternatives
Whether it’s arranging dinner plans, messaging friends in other countries, or making agreements with colleagues: WhatsApp is an essential part of daily life for many smartphone users. In fact, ‘many’ might be an understatement – as of February 2016, WhatsApp exceeded the one billion mark for users worldwide. But, while their user figures continue to grow, so too do concerns about WhatsApp’s privacy. Since the messenger service was purchased by Facebook, there have been a few notable issues with WhatsApp sharing private user data to its parent company, with Germany notably declaring this data sharing to be illegal. This has led to a lot of concerned users looking for alternatives to Facebook to protect their data privacy and avoid their information being used for targeted advertising. But if you want to stop giving Facebook your information, you’ll have to stop using their other services, like WhatsApp and Instagram, as well. So what alternatives to WhatsApp are there to choose from? Here are our top 5.
|✔ No advertisements||✘ Not much transparency over the company itself|
|✔ Open source||✘ Stores meta data|
|✔ Cloud-based, accessible from a variety of different devices||✘ Cloud may affect privacy|
|✔ Option to delete content for the user|
|✔ Huge file sharing possible|
Telegram is a company run by the Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, famous for founding the Russian alternative to Facebook, VKontakte. After the Kremlin began to take stricter control over their internet service and Pavel Durov was foreced to leave the country, the brothers developed Telegram. Their messenger 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. But Telegram’s Cloud technology allows much larger file sizes to be shared and much more data to be sent, received, and stored.
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. But Telegram itself does have access to the content of chats on the server, and so it could theoretically forward this information on to external sources. 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. Telegram itself has no access to this content, which means that it’s also impossible for the data to be forwarded or accessed by third parties or security services.
Messages that are sent with an end-to-end encryption don’t get stored on the Telegram Cloud and so can only be opened and read on the device they were initially sent from or first received on. There’s also a setting for the secret chats 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 in data protection for greater user-friendliness. But many users who have switched to Telegram in recent months haven’t done so looking for higher levels of encryption: they’ve done so because Telegram has nothing to do with Facebook.
However, Telegram also doesn’t promise that the company will always operate under the same data protection guidelines or that it’ll never be sold. This has created some concerns about the lack of clarity over the corporate structure of this WhatsApp alternative, while rumours about its use by the Islamic State has tarnished its reputation somewhat. For users who value data protection above comfort, it’s worth finding another alternative to WhatsApp.
|✔ High user rate||✘ Not open source|
|✔ Viber’s Out feature allows calls to non-Viber users||✘ Past security concerns|
|✔ Games and Public Chats|
|✔ End-to-end encryption with forwarding secrecy for files and messages|
Viber is an instant messaging service originally developed in Israel. It was founded by the former chief information officer in the Israeli army, Talmon Marco, and now claims to have more than 800 million users of its cross-platform service. In 2014, it was purchased from Viber Media by Rakuten for $900 million, but it still operates under the name Viber today.
Viber offers individual, one-to-one messaging as well as group chats, voice calls, and video calls. It functions on all of the most popular client operating systems, including Windows Phone, Android, iOS, and Blackberry OS. The most unique setting on Viber is its Viber Out feature. This allows users to call or text others who are not on Viber by buying credit, just as you would to make calls from your smartphone or landline. But the rates are much cheaper, and calls to other countries are similarly affordable. Needless to say, Viber-to-Viber calls within the app are always free of charge, using either Wi-Fi or data roaming.
Viber works by accessing your address book for contacts, immediately distinguishing whether existing phone contacts also have the software. It also features a games centre called Viber Games, where you can play against the computer or online friends. And Viber Public Accounts offers a look into celebrity lives with ‘Public Chats’. This functions in a similar way to Snapchat Stories or Instagram Stories, giving users the option to follow channels and discussions, and to be updated on news and events in a variety of trending topics and outlets.
When it comes to security, Viber has had issues in the past. But all messages sent within Viber to other Viber accounts now feature end-to-end encryption with forward secrecy. Any files transferred in this way are also encrypted, but unlike Telegram, Viber doesn’t offer screenshot protection or self-destructing messages, meaning that once a message has been sent or received, there’s no way of guaranteeing it will never be read by anyone else. For a closer look at the encryption procedures on Viber, read up on their security overview web page.
|✔ Open source||✘ Only available for iOS from iOS 8 version|
|✔ Self-destroying messages||✘ Comparatively fewer users|
|✔ PIN lock function||✘ No backup function|
|✔ Encrypted phone calls possible|
|✔ Stores very little meta data|
Signal is, like many WhatsApp alternatives, 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 the telephone numbers are transmitted anonymously (‘hashed’) to the server.
But, on the other hand, the user is required to share his/her contact list with Signal during the registration process. This is optional on WhatsApp, though it’s important to note that WhatsApp becomes very difficult to use without sharing your contact list to it, as you can’t add telephone numbers using the keypad. Signal stores very little meta data, and no information about who is communicating with whom. The only thing that the app stores is whether someone is using the service or not.
For security reasons, Signal offers no backup function, unlike many other WhatsApp alternatives. And while some of the alternatives to WhatsApp we’ve discussed 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 back-up. The advantage is that the chance of the backup landing in the wrong hands is a lot slimmer. For the same reason as with backups, Signal doesn’t feature a screenshots function.
Besides being open source but lacking a backup function, Signal’s other prominent feature is its impressive encrypted telephone call function, and it’s the only one on this list to offer it. But if you’re the owner of an older iPhone, then this Open Whisper System messenger might not be an option for you: Signal only functions with iOS 8 and above. But if you’re looking for the best security encryption possible, at the expense of some usability, then Signal is the messenger for you.
|✔ End-to-end encryption||✘ Stores meta data|
|✔ Backup function, access from different end devices||✘ Not open source|
|✔ Option to send free SMS messages to contacts who don’t have FreeMessage installed||✘ All messages are stored on the server (though they are encrypted)|
|✔ Possible to use via e-mail apps from GMX and Web.de||✘ No call function|
FreeMessage is the free messenger service from 1&1. The app uses end-to-end encryption in all chats, even for video and photo transfers. The developers advertise that the security company Cure53 has created a white paper to confirm the security of the FreeMessage service. But, according to the report, FreeMessage does store user meta data. In addition, the developers state that they’ve deliberately chosen to set up a backup feature that stores all user messages in an encrypted form on the server. This admittedly makes it a little easier to bypass the FreeMessage encryption than with other solutions, but it does give the 1&1 messenger service the great advantage of being able to be used on a selection of different devices.
This decision certainly adds to the user-friendliness of the app and is a big advantages for users who prefer comfort to maximum security. It’s important to remember that this backup function doesn’t give 1&1 access to the content of these messages. And storing this meta data is designed to benefit users, as it allows FreeMessage to analyse user behaviour. FreeMessage was set up in Germany and so all this data is stored on servers in Germany rather than in the USA, like many of the other messenger programmes. As a result, it has to comply with stricter European Union laws on data protection. The source code is never publicized, but it can be viewed by interested users.
FreeMessage is integrated into the e-mail apps from German companies GMX and Web.de, offering access to 30 million potential users, due to the popularity of GMX and Web.de, particularly in Germany. But for friends and contacts of yours who don’t have these services, the developers have come up with another solution: They offer an ‘SMS fall back’ that allows the user to send messages to contacts who haven’t installed FreeMessage yet – in the form of a free SMS. At the bottom of each message, there is an integrated link to the download page for the app in the corresponding app store. This clever method of acquiring customers could soon lead to FreeMessage, which was only founded in 2016, competing with the more established messenger apps on offer. But users should note that SMS messages sent via the app technically can’t be encrypted.
FreeMessage has a full range of functions and is easy to get to grips with. There are private and group chats, emoticons, and features that allow the user to send photos and record videos. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to share other types of files on FreeMessage, and there’s also currently no phone call function. Users can create a PIN code for accessing the app, meaning that nobody else can access the messages to read them, even if they gain access to the smartphone itself. This range of features makes FreeMessage a very suitable app for anyone who wants a user-friendly app that offers good security that doesn’t impact usability.
|✔ End-to-end encryption as standard||✘ No forwarding secrecy|
|✔ Backup function||✘ No screenshot protection|
|✔ Timeline feature that behaves like a social network||✘ No self-destructing message function|
|✔ Group conference calls for up to 200 people||✘ Not open source|
LINE is an all-encompassing alternative to WhatsApp that offers a wide range of features. Founded in Japan, LINE actually started out as a disaster response app following the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011. By June of that year it was live, and its popularity has grown at an unprecedented rate, even causing several crashes. Today, it has more than 700 million active users worldwide, and is available on common mobile operating systems, including iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and more.
LINE has a huge variety of features that make it a rival for many social networks as well as messengers. It offers standard one-to-one messaging and group messaging, along with voice and video calls. Once you’ve created an account with LINE, you can register your mobile number for your desktop computer, too, to make voice calls and video calls online. This service is free if calling other LINE users. In using the ‘LINE Out’ feature, you can take advantage of cheap rates for international calls to non-LINE users from your computer or mobile device, in the same way as Viber Out. The app also offers a backup function, known as the ‘Keep’ mode, where messages, photos, and videos can be stored.
The developers of LINE have recently incorporated another one of their apps, previously known as ‘Popcorn Buzz,’ into their flagship LINE messenger app. Popcorn Buzz was specially designed to allow group conference calls to take place with up to a remarkable 200 participants. Thanks to the app merger, this is now possible in the standard LINE app on smartphones or desktop computers, meaning that video chats in the workplace with multiple colleagues, or at home with friends and family, can be made. Like Viber, LINE offers a built-in gaming feature. It also permits file transfer, but this is only possible for photos and videos.
When it comes to safety, LINE has recently upped its game to compete with other WhatsApp alternatives. In late 2015, the developers introduced a ‘hidden chat’ mode, which allows users to turn on automatic end-to-end encryption for messages to certain contacts. Since July 2016, this has become standard for all one-to-one messages, and as of August 2016, LINE now offers end-to-end encryption for all group chats, voice calls, and video calls as well. However, LINE isn’t open source and doesn’t offer forwarding secrecy, screenshot protection, or self-destructing messages. It also doesn’t feature a PIN protection or any other means of encrypting stored messages.
LINE has a number of special, extra features that really set it apart from other alternatives to WhatsApp. These include a GPS coordinate tracker, allowing you to send your location to contacts (though this of course requires you to share data about your current location to LINE). LINE’s Sticker Shop offers the world’s largest collection of stickers for your messages, while their Official Accounts section acts as a sort of celebrity news feed, where you can follow your favourite stars for updates and receive special coupons from your favourite brands. It’s also possible to run your own news feed to keep friends and co-workers updated on your life – and comment on others. Since January 2015, LINE have even rolled out their own version of Uber. LINE Taxi allows you to book and pay for cabs through the LINE app. At present, this is only operational in the LINE HQ hometown of Tokyo, but they are hatching plans for expanding.
As the security features demonstrate, LINE isn’t the most protected messenger out there. But in contrast to apps like Signal, this Tokyo-based WhatsApp alternative focuses on usability and an extended range of features, at the expense of maximum security. So if you’re looking for an instant messaging client that gives you all the features of a social network, then LINE is a great option to consider.
Alternatives to WhatsApp: can they compete?
The biggest disadvantage of all these WhatsApp alternatives is definitely the comparatively low user rate: even apps like Viber and LINE, both of which have a high user rate, see figures drop drastically when it comes down to users based in the UK. 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 messenger 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 to use WhatsApp as little as possible. And if you have notifications turned on for all of them, you can see who’s messaging you on WhatsApp and respond on a different messenger app of your choice. It’s worth remembering that the more you use messenger apps that don’t store your meta data, or at least store less of it, the harder it is for companies to create a coherent, reliable profile for you. So there’s plenty of time to convince friends and colleagues of the benefits of using a more secure messenger app.
|Available for…||Encryption||Stores contact and meta data?||Number of users|
|Android, Blackberry, iOS (only for iPhone), Windows Phone, Symbian (for Nokia S40 and S60)||End-to-end||Yes||Roughly 1 billion (Data accurate as of: February 2016)|
|Telegram||iOS and Android||Client-to-server and end-to-end (in ‘Secret Chats’ mode)||Yes||More than 100 million (Data accurate as of: February 2016)|
|Viber||iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry||End-to-end||More than 800 million (Data accurate as of: February 2016)|
|Signal||Android and iOS (from iOS 8); plugin for Chrome||End-to-end||No||No information offered by producers. Between one and five million downloads on the Google Playstore.|
|FreeMessage||iOS and Android||End-to-end||Yes||Unknown|
|LINE||iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Firefox, Nokia Asha||End-to-end||Yes||Roughly 700 million (Data accurate as of: February 2016)|
|Open source?||Useful functions not offered by WhatsApp||Stand-alone desktop version?||Cost|
|Telegram||Yes||User name instead of phone number, stickers, channels, self-destructive messages, link previews||Yes||Free|
|Viber||No||Forward secrecy, celebrity timelines with ‘Public Accounts’, phone calls to non-Viber users with ‘Viber Out’||Yes||Free|
|FreeMessage||No||Free SMS messages to contacts who haven’t installed FreeMessage, PIN security function||No||Free|
|LINE||No||Social network features like ‘Official Accounts’, news feed, timeline, comment functions, and gaming. Group conference video calls for up to 200 people also possible||Yes||Free|