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.
Whether it’s arranging dinner plans, messaging friends in other countries, or making arrangements with colleagues: WhatsApp is an essential part of daily life for many smartphone users. In fact, “many” might be an understatement – as of 2018, the number of WhatsApp users exceeded 1.5 billion worldwide. But, while its 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. 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 six.
|✔ Free for private use||✘ Basic version allows a maximum of ten different group chats|
|✔ Can be used without providing a mobile number||✘ Voice and video calls only work if all participants use Spike|
|✔ Cross-platform compatibility (browser and desktop/mobile apps)|
|✔ All data is transmitted and stored with a unique AES 256 key|
Spike is a dialogue-based email app, designed primarily as a collaboration tool but also works well as a high quality WhatsApp alternative, thanks to its group-orientated chat feature. Developed by an Israeli software company, the classic email inbox is transformed into a modern dialogue 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 WhatsApp alternatives.
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. Unlike most email clients, this WhatsApp alternative shows three small consecutive dots when another user is typing a message – something must more common with other messenger services.
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 prioritises 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.
|✔ 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|
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 forced to leave the country, the brothers developed Telegram. Their WhatsApp alternative 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. 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’tget 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. For users who value data protection above comfort, it’s worth finding another alternative to WhatsApp.
|✔ Better encrypted than WhatsApp||✘ Not open source|
|✔ Practical voting feature||✘ Comparatively few users|
|✔ No advertisements||✘ Not free|
|✔ PIN lock feature|
|✔ Stores very little meta data|
|✔ Encrypted telephone calls also possible|
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 synchronises contacts from your phone’s contact list, they are only transferred to the server anonymously (“hashed”). In addition, unlike WhatsApp, Threema does not store meta data 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 WhatsApp alternative - 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.
|✔ Open source||✘ Comparatively few users|
|✔ Self-destroying messages||✘ No backup function|
|✔ PIN lock feature|
|✔ 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 telephone numbers are transmitted anonymously (“hashed”) to the server.
On the other hand, however, the user is required to share their 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 with 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 backup. The advantage is that the chance of the backup landing in the wrong hands is a lot slimmer.
|✔ End-to-end encryption||✘ Address book is transferred over|
|✔ Verification of personal contacts||✘ Phone number required for registration|
|✔ Self-destructive messages||✘ Low number of users|
|✔ Message planning||✘ Not open source|
|✔ Whitelabel solution for companies||✘ No telephone calls|
Deutsche Post (a German postal service) also wanted to try its hand at messaging and that’s how SIMSme came to be. In the meantime, the service was sold to Brabbler AG, which is already known on the market thanks to its instant messenger, ginlo. For SIMSme users, nothing should change at least in the foreseeable future.
Like most WhatsApp alternatives, SIMSme also offers its users encrypted sending of messages and files - free of charge and without any advertising. You can protect your own data further by scanning a QR code when you meet a person so that you can verify them.
A special feature is the self-destructive messages: pictures, videos, and chat messages can be removed automatically as soon as the recipient has seen them. It is also possible to send messages at a pre-determined time. To do this, you simply set the desired sending time in advance. Another of the app’s specialities is that users can inform themselves about news via content channels.
The app is available in a free version for private users and in another variant for business customers. Companies have the option of adapting the app’s appearance to that of their own brand. In contrast to private users, business customers can also download versions for tablets and PCs.
|✔ Cross-platform||✘ Low number of users|
|✔ Modern design||✘ Stores meta data|
|✔ Group calls possible|
|✔ Open source|
The rather new WhatsApp alternative Wire was founded in 2014. The company has not yet published user figures, but due to many people still not being aware of the messaging service, it can be assumed that there are currently still fewer users than with the other WhatsApp alternatives. 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.
Wire also uses end-to-end encryption from Open Whisper Systems. The app stores meta data in the same way as Telegram, but does so anonymously. The storage of meta data can also be switched off.
Wire's biggest unique selling point is that, thanks to voice-over-IP technology, you can make group calls with the app. This makes sense since Wire was founded by Skype co-founder Janus Friis. These calls are also tap-proof. Wire is the only WhatsApp alternative where both group calls and video calls have end-to-end encryption.
When you use Wire, you should exercise caution with third-party features such as YouTube or SoundCloud. This is because the data that users generate when sending this content is subject to third-party privacy policies. So if you want to avoid information on user behaviour being visible, you should not use these features. In addition, Wire also has access to sent photos.
Similar to Telegram, the app works across platforms - but in a much more secure way: In order not to circumvent end-to-end encryption, the chat processes are not transferred between the different end devices. For example, if you start a chat on your smartphone, you will not be able to access the messages on your PC.
|✔ Doesn’t save meta data||✘ Not open source|
|✔ End-to-end encryption||✘ Low number of users|
|✔ Anonymous login||✘ No telephone calls|
|✔ Secure data exchange with nearby users|
This alternative to WhatsApp, Hoccer, comes from Germany. It scores points with its high security and anonymity. As with the competition, all Hoccer chats are secured by end-to-end encryption. This also applies to sending pictures, videos, audio recordings, contacts, and location data. There is no file size limitation. Telephone calls via this messaging service are not possible, however. No information needs to be transmitted to the service when you log in. Neither telephone number nor email address are required, and it’s fine to choose a pseudonym for the service.
An interesting feature is the ability to exchange data with other users in your vicinity. You can see users that are within around 300ft of you so you can chat or exchange files with them. All this is encrypted. If you need even more security, you can check the public key on the other person's smartphone.
The app can be protected by an additional password. An interesting additional feature (for iOS users): If someone wants to gain unauthorised access to the app and enters the wrong password, the front camera automatically takes a picture of this person.
Hoccer is free and does not show advertisements to its users. According to its own statements, the company finances itself through premium offers for professional purposes. All Hoccer servers are located in Germany and therefore comply with the high German data protection standards. A major disadvantage of the messaging service is that the software is not (at least not yet) open source - which means that you have to trust the company's security since you can’t check the source.
Alternatives to WhatsApp: can they compete?
The biggest disadvantage of all these WhatsApp alternatives is definitely the comparatively low user rate. 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 so that you 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 messaging app of your choice. It’s worth remembering that the more you use messaging 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 messaging app.
|Available for…||Encryption||Stores contact and meta data||Number of users||Advertising|
|Android, iOS, Windows Phone, , macOS, Windows||End-to-end||Yes||Roughly 1.5 billion (as of 2018)||Not at the moment, but could change|
|Spike||iOS, Android, macOS, Windows||End-to-end||Yes||Unknown||No|
|Telegram||iOS, Android, Windows Phone||Client-to-server and end-to-end (in “secret chats” mode)||Yes||More than 200 million (as of 2018)||No|
|Threema||iOS, Android, Windows Phone||End-to-end||Only some: no data about who communicated when and with whom||4.5 million (as of 2018)||No|
|Signal||Android, iOS, macOS, Windows, Linux||End-to-end||No||Unknown||No|
|ginlo||iOS, Android (desktop only for business customers)||End-to-end||Yes||Unknown||No|
|Wire||Android, iOSWindows, macOS, Linux||End-to-end||Yes||Unknown||No|
|Open source||Useful functions (not offered by WhatsApp)||Stand-alone desktop version?||Cost|
|Spike||No||Uses email account instead of mobile number||Yes||Free|
|Telegram||Yes||User name instead of phone number, stickers, channels, self-destructive messages, link previews||Yes||Free|
|Threema||No||Voting feature||Yes||1,99€ – 3,49 (£1-80 – 3.60)|
|ginlo||No||Self-destructive messages, scheduled message sending||No (only for business customers)||Free|
|Wire||Yes||Send group calls, video calls, SoundCloud music or YouTube videos, insert drawings with your finger or mouse||Yes||Free|
|Hoccer||No||Anonymous login, file exchange with nearby users||No|