Major announcements from WhatsApp, the Internet messaging services, are like city buses: You can wait a long time for one, then two show up at once. On the heels of its $16 billion deal to be bought by Facebook, WhatsApp announced on Monday that it would start offering free voice services later this year — diversifying beyond its main messaging service into phone calls. Speaking at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, the tech company’s chief executive, Jan Koum, said users in the second quarter would be able to make Internet calls through their smartphones similar to services that are already available on rival Internet messaging offerings like Kakao of South Korea and Viber of Cyprus.
WhatsApp’s voice service is expected to be available first on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems, then expand to others like Windows Phone and Blackberry, he added. Mr. Koum, who was born in Ukraine before moving to the United States as a teenager, also said on Monday that WhatsApp would launch a mobile brand in a partnership with the German cellphone carrier E-Plus. The WhatsApp chief executive said the mobile brand would initially be available only in Germany, though he did not provide any more specifics on the product, which is expected to be launched by the end of the year.
“The world is moving to data very quickly,” Mr. Koum said in a speech. “Data is the next generation in what is driving the mobile industry.” WhatsApp’s push to offer its 465 million monthly users Internet voice calls is the first announcement since Facebook agreed to buy the San Francisco-based tech company last week for $16 billion. The final price may rise to $19 billion with WhatsApp employees and founders receiving an additional $3 billion in restricted stock, which would vest over the next four years. Currently, the messaging service has more than 40 million users in India, and 38 million in Brazil, according to the company. The start-up also has 31 million users in Germany, though it did not provide numbers on its American user base. Mr. Koum played down rumors that the deal with Facebook would lead to major changes to how WhatsApp operates, including the potential addition of advertising and other revenue-generating services.
“For WhatsApp to be successful, it has to stay independent,” Mr. Koum said on Monday. “There are no planned changes.”
By expanding into voice, WhatsApp is going head-to-head with the likes of Skype and traditional cellphone operators like AT&T and Deutsche Telekom. Analysts say the move also could lead Facebook to revamp its own mobile offerings, which have centered on software called Home that has won few fans since launching last year.