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Business

Looking for next WhatsApp in Boston

WhatsApp has become a preferred way to communicate via mobile devices in many countries, dwarfing Facebook’s mobile users.

David W Cerny /REUTERS

WhatsApp has become a preferred way to communicate via mobile devices in many countries, dwarfing Facebook’s mobile users.

Could it happen in Boston? Could a local startup attract the kind of blockbuster deal that Facebook has made for the texting application firm WhatsApp?

The short answer is probably not, but some local app makers may have the type of profile, particularly a growing base of international users, that might entice big tech companies to drop a significant chunk of change to buy them. Many tech analysts theorized Thursday that Facebook was willing to spend $19 billion on WhatsApp because of the four-year old Silicon Valley firm’s huge overseas popularity.

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WhatsApp has become a preferred way to communicate via mobile devices in many countries, dwarfing Facebook’s mobile users. In Mexico, for example, a recent poll of mobile device users found that 75 percent used WhatsApp’s messaging service, compared with less than 5 percent for Facebook’s, according to Jana Mobile, a Boston mobile marketing firm.

Several Boston tech startups have built and continue to grow large international customer bases. Among them is RunKeeper, developer of an app that tracks fitness activities. The company, founded in 2008, estimates that two-thirds of its 28 million users live outside the United States.

Users can track their workouts in 10 languages, including English. “We’ve been a global company since the earliest days,” said founder and chief executive Jason Jacobs.

Acquia, the Burlington-based open source software company, has built a large business in Europe and beyond. Founded by Dries Buytaert, a Belgian native, and Jay Batson, a local entrepreneur who now mentors Boston startups, the company has more 4,000 corporate customers (1,500 outside the US) and 400 employees around the globe.

Acquia has operations in Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Britain, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Despite their international strategies, Both RunKeeper and Acquia don’t appear to be leading candidates for acquisition. Acquia seems heading toward an IPO, and RunKeeper executives say their goal is to build the company.

Jana provides marketing services in developing countries. It offers incentives — from money to free minutes for mobile phone users — to participate in surveys on issues such as vaccination that might aid governments and nonprofits to develop policies to fight disease, poverty, and other problems. Jana estimates that millions of people use its mobile platform to participate in surveys and other marketing efforts.

Boundless Learning, headquartered near South Station, is an educational technology firm that creates alternatives to expensive textbooks. It said half its website’s traffic is international. Like WhatsApp, this traffic comes primarily from developing nations such as Pakistan, Kenya, Bangladesh, and Nigeria.

The company estimates that it reaches some 3 million students with the affordable college- and graduate-level textbook options it creates from information readily available online.

TalkTo, of Cambridge, has developed a mobile messaging app that allows user to send texts quickly to retail stores to check the availability of goods. Launched last spring, the company is finding its first international market in Canada, which now accounts for more than 15 percent of its users.

Dennis Keohane writes for Boston.com’s innovation news site, The Hive. He
can be reached at dennis.keohane@globe.com.
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