If Facebook hopes to remain the social networking leader, CEO Mark Zuckerberg knows the company must follow the people. That realization compelled Zuckerberg to pay $19 billion for WhatsApp, a mobile messaging application that is redefining the concept of texting while its audience of 450 million users expands at an even faster clip than Facebook itself.
The deal sent shock waves through the technology industry because of the staggering price being paid for a four-year-old service that isn't as well known in the U.S. as it is overseas where WhatsApp has become a hip way to communicate instantaneously.
Although the amount of money involved is difficult to comprehend, the reason Facebook prizes WhatsApp is easier to grasp.
''This is a `go big or go home' moment for Facebook,'' said Benedict Evans, a former cellphone analyst who is now a partner with the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
Just as he did nearly two years ago when Facebook bought photo-sharing service Instagram for $715 million, Zuckerberg is trying to ensure that his company doesn't get left behind as people move to the next trend.
And WhatsApp is what's hot now. The Mountain View, California, startup already has nearly twice as many users as the better known short messaging service, Twitter Inc. What's more, WhatsApp is adding about 1 million users each day - more than even Facebook.
The rapid growth has convinced Zuckerberg that WhatsApp is bound to exceed 1 billion users within the next few years to give Facebook even more telling insights into what matters to people. Even at its current size, WhatsApp is already handling an average of 19 billion messages per day. Those daily messages include about 600 million photos. Facebook believes that WhatsApp's messaging volume already exceeds all the traditional texts sent through the networks of cellphone carriers. Those short messaging services, or SMS, generate about $100 billion in annual revenue while WhatsApp charges just $1 annually after the first year of free usage.
By making a big bet on WhatsApp, Zuckerberg is trying to avoid the mistake that one of his heroes, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, made during the late 1990s when the Internet began to trigger an upheaval in business and culture. Gates recognized that Microsoft's lucrative Windows software franchise could be undermined by a variety of new services made possible by the Internet, but didn't act on some his early instincts.