Many of WhatsApp's more than 1 billion users already employ the mobile messaging application to communicate with small businesses, but entrepreneurs around the world will soon have a separate, dedicated app for chatting with their customers.

Yesterday, Facebook-owned WhatsApp said it had begun rolling out WhatsApp Business for Android users in the U.S. and four other markets: Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, and the U.K. The new app will start to roll out to businesses in the rest of the world in the coming weeks, the company added.

In September, WhatsApp revealed that it was developing two new applications specifically for businesses, one for small companies and the other for large enterprises. Yesterday's announcement did not indicate when an enterprise app might be released.

Building on Lessons Learned from Consumer App

Available on the Google Play store as a free download, WhatsApp Business adds a number of new features not available to users of the consumer-focused app. They include options for a business profile, automated replies for frequently asked questions and away messages, and statistics about messages that are read and other user metrics.

WhatsApp Business (pictured above) also lets entrepreneurs access messaging via desktop devices and use the application with landlines as well as with mobile phones.

In a September blog post about the needs of business users, WhatsApp noted that -- while many people were already using the app to shop, place orders or ask questions about products -- "the way this happens now on WhatsApp is pretty rudimentary." WhatsApp added that it aimed to develop new business apps that would "apply what we've learned helping people connect with each other to helping people connect with businesses that are important to them."

More than 80 percent of its small-business users in Brazil and India say they find the app helpful for communicating with customers, according to a study WhatsApp cited yesterday.

For Customers, WhatsApp Remains Business as Usual

Customers who already use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses won't need to download a new application or do anything differently, the company said yesterday. They will also "continue to have full control over the messages they receive, with the ability to block any number, including businesses, as well as report spam."

As with some other social media applications, over time WhatsApp Business will specify some users as confirmed accounts, the company said.

Like its parent company Facebook, WhatsApp sees opportunity in expanding its original focus on individual users to include business and organizational users as well. Together, both companies already have massive numbers of people using their mobile messaging apps each month. As of April, Facebook Messenger reported 1.2 billion active monthly users, while in July, WhatsApp said it had 1.3 billion active monthly users.

WhatsApp's announcement yesterday did not say when an iOS version of the business app might be released. While the current version of WhatsApp Business is free to use, the company eventually plans to offer some business tools as paid services, chief operating officer Matthew Idema told The Wall Street Journal in September.