My partner recently made the leap from iPhone to Android. “So how do I get my WhatsApp messages from my old phone to my new one?” they asked shortly after setting the new phone up. “Simple!” I chirped. “You just restore it from your backup.” How wrong I was. It turns out your WhatsApp chat history—all those thousands of photos and messages—can’t be moved between operating systems.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
It’s one of those simple-sounding questions. And it should just work, right? You’ve got a backup somewhere in the cloud, so why can’t you download it onto a different operating system and take your archive of messages, photos and videos with you wherever you go, forevermore? You might assume WhatsApp is WhatsApp regardless of whether it’s on Android or iOS—well, turns out it isn’t.
Pop the quandary into a search engine of your choice and you quickly find yourself drowning in a confusing slurry of poorly written step-by-step guides, most of which are technically inaccurate or just downright misleading. I’ll spare you the headache and heartache: you can’t do it. It is currently not possible to move your WhatsApp backup from Android to iOS and vice versa.
Except you can. If you’re willing to use third-party software and follow a series of fiddly, convoluted steps. But do you really want to hand over your whole WhatsApp chat history to a piece of software called WazzapMigrator? No, thought not. And yet here we are. If you’ve spent years sending private messages, videos and photos over WhatsApp on your iPhone, then you should think twice about switching to Android.
The world’s most popular messaging service, with more than two billion users, has a somewhat baffling flaw. But why? According to WhatsApp, it’s because of a technical knot that’s fiendishly difficult to unpick. “There is a difference in the formats in which the data is stored in the Android and iOS apps, as the database schemas are different,” a spokesperson explains. On an iPhone, iOS backs up WhatsApp chats to iCloud. On Android, backups go to Google Drive. And the two systems don’t like talking to one another.
Simply put, the two backup formats are completely different to one another. That’s mostly down to security. Create a backup for WhatsApp on an iPhone and the file is created to be securely stored on iCloud. Do the same on Android and the file is created to be securely stored on Google Drive. But as the two systems have different security requirements, it isn’t currently possible to transfer one backup to another operating system.
“It is technically possible, but it is not supported today by WhatsApp given the difference in data formats,” the spokesperson explains. When asked if a solution was in development, the spokesperson said the company does not comment on “future products”.
No big deal, right? Wrong. The move to more private social media use—driven mostly by Facebook’s privacy record—means WhatsApp has become a social network. Albeit one where you can more easily choose who you share with. It’s where photos of weddings, holidays and family get-togethers are shared. It’s where weekend plans are hatched and old friends who now live far away are kept in touch with. And while a lot of those messages are fleeting, the photos and videos we share alongside them are a sort of diary. Where once that would have played out more publicly on Facebook or Instagram, it’s now shared on WhatsApp.
There’s another issue bubbling here: what do you do with all this stuff you’re accumulating? Those thousands of messages, photos and videos stretching back for years won’t be around forever, yet we feel compelled to hoard them for as long as we can. Being forced to abandon your WhatsApp history when you move operating system feels cruel.
Cloud storage and the relative ease with which our phones enable us to hoard every aspect of our lives has made it almost unthinkable that we’d ever throw away a piece of data. We’ve spent years collecting it all—there’s so much of it—that doing anything other than towing it along with us until we die feels unconscionable. Or, you know, WhatsApp could just make backups work cross-platform. Then the existential angst might fade away.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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