WhatsApp’s Multidevice Feature Could Teach Apple’s iMessage Some New Tricks

WhatsApp’s new cross-device features are released for release.

James Martin/CNET

Your phone doesn’t have to be working to access texts on WhatsApps. Thanks to the new Linked Devices feature of the web and desktop apps before in beta and public launch over the next few months, you’ll get faster access to chats from almost any computer or tablet of your choice, while retaining much of the encryption and security the app is known for. WhatsApp’s latest feature creates a cross-platform texting experience that reminds me of using iMessage on Mac and iPhone — but without the requirement of only being stuck on Apple’s devices.

WhatsApp’s desktop apps aren’t new, to be clear. However, they previously required a constant connection with your phone to work. When your phone was turned off or temporarily lost, you essentially couldn’t access your texts at all. Other meta-owned services like Messenger don’t have this limitation, but at the cost of your privacy, since end-to-end encryption isn’t enabled by default.

WhatsApp now lets you choose up to four devices besides your phone that can send and receive WhatsApp messages. You set up these devices by scanning a QR code generated on the WhatsApp website or desktop app with the WhatsApp app on your phone, after which they will be listed as “linked devices” in your account. From that point on, this browser or desktop app can access your WhatsApp texts regardless of whether your phone is nearby. In addition to this flexibility, I also found that WhatsApp just launched a lot faster on the devices I tested, which include my work Mac, a Chromebook, and an iPad.

I wouldn’t call WhatsApp’s multi-device system perfect just yet, and other messaging apps like Signal and Telegram offer similar solutions, so let’s go through a few more details on WhatsApp’s special multi-device setup.

whatsapp-multidevice.png

When your WhatsApp account gets the new linked devices feature, you will get a message similar to this one.

Whatsapp

Works on almost every device, but not almost every function

The best thing about the new launch of WhatsApp for multiple devices is the speed. As I mentioned earlier, I can switch between different devices on multiple operating systems and seamlessly keep up with group chats or quick text messages. However, some features like video and voice calls only work on WhatsApp’s Windows, macOS, and mobile apps. The web version I use on my Chromebook and iPad doesn’t have access to these calling features.

You can access linked devices in WhatsApp settings.

Screenshot by Mike Sorrentino/CNET

WhatsApp also points out other omissions that linked devices don’t yet support, including deleting or deleting chats from a linked device when using WhatsApp on an iPhone and viewing live location.

And while a linked device doesn’t require a connection to your phone, the new WhatsApp feature still requires a phone to get started. During setup, your phone sends a copy of your recent message history to your device.

Linked devices also rely on your phone using WhatsApp to stay logged in. If you don’t log into WhatsApp from your phone for 14 days — whether it’s because you lost your phone or you only use WhatsApp very occasionally for certain contacts — all linked devices will be logged out.

I also found that you could accidentally top up your linked device limit quickly. If you are using the WhatsApp desktop app and WhatsApp for the web on the same computer, WhatsApp will see them as two devices. If you clear your cache on your web browser and then log back into WhatsApp on that web browser, it will also show up as a new linked device. It’s easy to remove linked devices from your settings, but it’s worth it, some device admins show up quicker than expected.

Also, smartwatches can’t be a linked device for now, and WhatsApp doesn’t offer an Apple Watch app either. I find it easy enough to use WhatsApp from an Apple Watch by replying to notifications, but you can’t start new messages using this method. I’m aware of third-party Apple Watch apps on the App Store that unofficially integrate with WhatsApp, but I’d be wary of giving an additional vendor access to them.

Can any SMS service copy this please?

As I mentioned, the multi-device version of WhatsApp isn’t particularly new, but there’s plenty of room for other SMS apps to improve their services in this cross-platform direction. Signal, whose encryption protocol uses WhatsApp, offers cross-device SMS via apps on mobile, desktop and iPad, but does not currently support a web version for non-app building platforms. Signal also doesn’t offer cloud backups of your texts, so your messages remain stored on the devices themselves. Signal provides instructions for backing up and restoring messages with a process that transfers your texts directly from phone to phone.

Android’s Messages app offers encryption for texts sent via RCS, and there’s a web version – but this web version relies on syncing directly to a phone, much like how the previous version of WhatsApp works.

Apple’s iMessage works seamlessly on MacBooks, iPad tablets, the Apple Watch and iPhone – including encrypted text and partial encryption for backups. The flexibility to switch between these devices has always been a highlight of the iMessage service. Still, it’s becoming increasingly common for someone to use an iPhone but perhaps own a Windows PC who can’t access iMessage. Or a Chromebook. Or an Android tablet. I’m not going to go into an iMessage-walled garden rant here, but when other competitors offer services that meet customers across platforms while maintaining encryption, it’s becoming increasingly notable when they don’t.

Encryption in text messaging apps is particularly relevant after the European Union recently approved it — but hasn’t adopted it yet Digital Markets Actaimed in part at obliging messaging leaders like Apple and Meta to enable interoperability. The rules are very new and aim to create a level playing field for newer services. While well-intentioned, it also creates a situation where technology companies may need to find a solution on how to enable this interoperability while maintaining the privacy of their customers.


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