Messaging and voice-over IP service WhatsApp is testing a new feature that will let people message without using their phone for the first time.
Presently, WhatsApp is linked to a user’s phone. Its desktop and web apps need that device to connect and receive messages. But the new feature will let users send and receive messages “even if your phone battery is dead”.
Up to four other devices – like PCs and tablets – can be used together, WhatsApp said on Thursday.
To begin with, the new feature will be rolled out as a beta test for a “small group of users”. The team plans to improve performance and add features before enabling it for everyone.
End-to-end encryption – a key selling point for WhatsApp – will still work under this new system, it said. Several other messaging apps already have such a feature, including rival encrypted app Signal, which requires a phone for sign-up, but not to exchange messages.
But the feature has long been requested by WhatsApp users – of which there are a reported two billion.
Facebook engineers said in a blog post announcing the move the change needed a “rethink” of WhatsApp’s software design.
The company said this is because the current version “uses a smartphone app as the primary device, making the phone the source of truth for all user data and the only device capable of end-to-end encrypting messages for another user [or] initiating calls”.
WhatsApp Web and other non-smartphone apps are essentially a “mirror” of what happens on the phone.
But that system has significant drawbacks familiar to many regular users, as the web app is known to frequently disconnect.