Whatsapp: bad system design for the masses

I’ve been using Whatsapp for about 2 years now, and it was more or less OK, until I bought a new phone and tried to move my account there. This proved to be a highly non trivial excercise full of frustration. In my naïveté I just installed Whatsapp on the new phone, expecting to see all my messages there, but alas. I saw an empty list instead. Through trial and error I have found that:

  • All whatsapp messages are physically stored on the phone.
  • Moving data directly from phone to phone is not supported.
  • I can use Whatsapp only one phone at a time.
  • It is not possible to see the messages stored on “inactive” phone, even in read-only mode.
  • Switching to another phones requires “verification”.
  • Switching back requires antoher “verification”.
  • Whatsapp offers to import message data only on the first run.
  • If something went wrong, the only way to do it again is to uninstall and reinstall Whatsapp.
  • Reinstall requires verification.
  • The number of verifications is limited! After a few attempts they are paused for several hours.
  • Simply copying Whatsapp data folder to another phone does not work.
  • You need to follow a special procedure (see below) to copy messages from phone to phone.
  • There is no way to synchronize messages received on phone A with messages received on phone B. You cannot merge the databases, and will lose either the former or the latter.

The procedure to copy data directly from Android to Android is described here:

It boils down to:

  1. On the old phone In Whatsapp/Databases folder, find the latest file with .db.crypt extension.
  2. Remove Whatsapp on the new phone if already isntalled.
  3. Move this file, and only this file to the new phone, creating Whatsapp/Database folder if necessary.
  4. Install and run Whatsapp on the new phone. It will say something like “backup found”.
  5. Let Whatsapp restore from backup.
  6. Copy Media folder from old phone to new phone.

All in all, I must say that Whatsapp authors chose to avoid difficult questions of database consistency by storing everything on one device and going through a single access point. This works great and provides nice security, but this effectively means that Whatsapp connects devices, not people.

News flash to Whatsapp people: I am not my phone. I may occasionally switch phone and even (gasp) use multiple devices simultaneously. Both of these use cases are addressed poorly by Wahtsapp. This could have been mitigated by giving me, the sole custodian of the messages database, better tools to manipulate it: back it up to the location of my choice, view its contents whenever I please, import it into the application whenever I like, and not only on first run, etc. This was not addresed either.

Bottom line: Whatsapp gets 1 star out of 5 for handling phone transfer use case.


  1. I believe it’s mostly “feature”. Whatsapp is very secure, messages are encrypted between devices, that’s why FB cannot store them anywhere. Limitations on data move between phones somewhat helps preventing highjacking your correspondence.
    But I really have another question – why do you need old messages at all? I always thought about whatsapp as “chat-and-forget” tool…


    1. FB happily stores undelivered mesasges for, I think, 30 days if the recipient’s phone is down or out of network. Encryption prevents one from snooping into the data, but not from storing it.

      I believe in the security benefits of storing messages on the phone, but I don’t buy the security benefits of not being able to transfer. After all, backup to Google Drive is probably the worst possible option in terms of security, yet it is the only one officially supported. My hunch is they just were lazy and did not want to solve the engineering complexities to support something that happens only once in a few years.

      Why do I need old messages? There could be multiple reasons. Sentimental value, some semi-important information, like “which restaurant did we go to last week”, etc. Certain applications like Snapchat explicitly position themselves as “chat and forget”, but Whatsapp, at least to the best of my knowledge, is not one of them.


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