If only I could make voice calls to my contacts on WhatsApp.
That was what I had been lamenting for the longest time. Even though there are plenty of messaging apps with in-app calling features, including Skype, Viber, Line, Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger, not enough of my friends and family members have installed those apps.
Even Facebook Messenger does not have a universal take-up among my contacts and, more importantly, not with my family members in Malaysia and China.
I have tried everything I know to try to get my mum onto one of these calling apps to help her save money on overseas calls she makes to her children. Creating a Viber or Skype account for her was easy, but getting her to use them was impossible. If you ask me, it's simply because she is not familiar with the user interface and, at her age, it is a challenge to learn these "techie things" that she has no interest in.
I failed miserably until last week.
Last Tuesday, WhatsApp finally turned on its calling feature, which lets its users on Android devices call one another for free over a mobile data connection or Wi-Fi. Access charges, however, still apply, and Apple iOS users will get their app update in the coming weeks.
The one app my 78-year-old mother really knows how to use is WhatsApp, and she is very active on it, using it to issue her decrees to her children and grandchildren, most of whom are listed in the "Oo Chatroom" group.
She also sends photos of stuff she wants her kids to look at - for example, a new dress she is thinking of buying for my daughter - and views the photos and videos we share in the group chat.
For my mum, whose grandchildren are strewn across three countries, WhatsApp is the best way she knows to keep in touch with her brood.
Until last week, she had not discovered an easy way to call her kids without busting her phone bill.
Now, she calls two of her three children (the eldest is on an Apple iPhone 6) without worrying about IDD charges, as both her home and workplace have Wi-Fi.
For me, and I suspect for many people living in Singapore, WhatApp calls are a godsend. While mobile data charges still apply for calls made using a mobile data connection, the cost is substantially lower than for mobile phone rates.
I made three calls of more than a minute each and found that the data usage of the 3.5 minutes' worth of calls came to 2.1MB. That works out to 600KB or so per minute. As every extra GB of mobile data costs about $8.50, the WhatsApp call costs about half a cent per minute. Compare that to the 15 cents per minute you pay for a standard mobile call and it is obvious that you will still save a lot in the long run, even if you must also pay for incoming WhatsApp calls.
And that is just for local mobile calls. When you use the app to make overseas calls, the cost savings are even better.
Generally, the quality of the calls was good though several times, the call was marred by lag. Sometimes, I would hear my own words echoing for several seconds after I had stopped speaking.
I no longer call close friends and family through the Contacts app in the phone. I use WhatsApp so much that I automatically look for the latest chat thread with the person I am trying to call and then use the WhatsApp interface to call him.
This is especially useful if I have trouble remembering the full name of someone I want to call. But I will always remember the name of the more commonly accessed WhatsApp chat groups which he or she is in.
In the past, that call would have been connected through a telco's mobile phone network, but now, it is a data call made through an app.
So for me to make an "ordinary" mobile phone call, I have to revert to the old way of making calls.
I have no doubt that this new feature will have a significant long-term impact on the telcos' business.
They may well have to adjust their mobile phone plans again to take into account the arrival of WhatsApp calls. Just how they will do it remains to be seen, but what is obvious is that making mobile phone calls will never be quite the same again.
This article was first published on Apr 8, 2015.
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