WhatsApp is the world’s leading secure messaging platform—but it now finds itself playing catch-up with fast-moving competitors. As good and as popular as the Facebook-owned platform might be, it still hasn’t deployed multi-device access in any meaningful way and that’s quickly becoming a serious issue. It’s also an issue made worse by the fast-moving convergence of messaging and calls—and with WhatsApp calls still tied to a phone, rather than an easier-to-use large screen device, it’s becoming a major stumbling block.
Facebook has solved this problem with its cross-platform Messenger Rooms—taking the fight to Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. But those Rooms do not offer end-to-end encryption, and this is Facebook we’re talking about—it wouldn’t be my first choice for person-to-person or group voice or video calls on anything sensitive or confidential.
WhatsApp does a brilliant job of securing voice and video calls from its iPhone and Android apps—and has recently increased this to enable eight-party calls. All calls are secured with end-to-end encryption. The great news is that WhatsApp now has a full desktop app in the works—part of a linked devices feature now in test, and it’s reported that desktop-based calls will be enabled.
But now the best and brightest alternative to WhatsApp has beaten the Facebook-owned platform to the punch. Uber-secure Signal has started beta-testing new one-to-one video and voice calls from its brilliant desktop app. And while this is not yet available for group calls, there’s a hint in Signal’s announcement that it has this in mind. “We think that calls need to zoom out of the past and into the future,” it says in a blog post that takes a dig at Zoom, “and your feedback will help us get there.”
Just like WhatsApp, Signal has Zoom in mind because the market leader has turned group video calls into a daily option/grind (delete as appropriate) for millions of us, both in our work and personal lives. “This release is one of the first steps towards our goal of enabling secure voice and video calls that are available on all of your devices,” Signal says, before taking a further pop at Zoom’s past misfires on encryption and restricting some functionality to paying users, “in addition to being end-to-end encrypted and free for everyone to use.”
Despite the digs at Zoom, that isn’t really the competition—this is all about WhatsApp. Signal is far and away the best secure messenger available today, and for anyone who dislikes trusting Facebook with their messaging, this is the option for you. Signal only has two drawbacks compared to WhatsApp. The first is that there are still not enough users—tens of millions versus a couple of billion. The second is that there are no backups, as such. If you lose your device, you lose your messages.
As regards its install base, Signal is growing quickly—driven by the push to security and its take-up during the recent protests in the U.S. and Hong Kong, where it was seen as the best, secure messenger for anyone concerned about interception, metadata or tracking. WhatsApp’s own encryption is built on Signal’s open source protocol, albeit Signal keeps its deployment transparent such that it can be reviewed by third-parties for vulnerabilities, WhatsApp does not.
Turning to the second issue, backups: Signal does allow users to transfer message history to a new device, and it stores an independent message history on every linked device—albeit only from when the device was linked, nothing is transferred from before then. But if you lose your primary device then you will need to start afresh.
While WhatsApp does enable chat and media backups, these are currently stored in Apple or Google’s cloud with no end-to-end encryption. That means users lose the protection that has become WhatsApp’s primary calling card when they back up. This is another issue that WhatsApp is reportedly fixing for a future release.
Desktop calling isn’t the only update Signal has in the works. The platform is also introducing message requests, which will gives users control of who can message them on the platform from outside their device’s contacts. The need for this was part driven by Signal’s soaring take-up. With more users joining up, the chances of unwanted messages increases. Now that’s being addressed.
WhatsApp has been leaking exciting updates by way of hidden code in new releases for months now—but Signal is chasing its users and is a step ahead. We need some of these WhatsApp updates on our devices in short order. In particular, we need end-to-end encrypted back-ups and linked devices, more than animated stickers and QR codes. The competition isn’t hanging around, and Signal is becoming the messenger of choice for millions.
If you haven’t used Signal yet, I strongly recommend you install it on your phone and check it out.