Facebook’s new Messenger platform could lead to a Messenger OS

Messenger Platform

You can read a German version of article here.

During the recent f8 conference Facebook announced the Messenger platform, consisting of Messenger for Business as well as a SDK for third party apps to integrate with Messenger.

This was pretty much expected. What surprised me more, at least initially, was the fact that apps cannot be installed directly within Messenger. Instead the idea is to let app developers create so called “companion apps” – existing (or new) mobile apps for iOS and Android that can be integrated with Messenger at some specific points during the interaction process. For the time being, only multimedia content such as photos, videos, GIFs and sound snippets can be published from third party apps into Messenger conversations.

With this decision, the Messenger platform differs from the Facebook platform launched back in 2007, which allowed users to add apps directly within facebook.com. This time, the apps that are supporting the Messenger platform are regular native iOS and Android apps and have to be downloaded by users from the App Store or Google Play Store.

From a user standpoint, this is an initial hurdle. Not everyone wants to clutter their home screen with lots of apps. Some prefer a more organized, selective approach to apps, others are afraid of their device getting slow. Additionally, installing an app from the app stores involves a few steps – even if a deeplink to the app is placed right inside the chat conversation. In an era of short attention spans, that can already be enough to make an user to change his or her mind. Would apps participating on the Messenger platform run right inside Messenger itself, users would be more likely to try them. Nevertheless, Facebook chose an “off-site” platform approach instead of an “on-site” one. Why?

The official answer to that question was given by Facebook’s head of messaging, David Marcus. A TechCrunch article cites him saying: “If we added a 10th to the capabilities [directly to Messenger] that we’ve added with partners today, it would make it really slow”. With the chosen approach, it’s not like the overall experience of the app is getting very bloated, according to Marcus.

That explanation sounds certainly partly plausible. However, considering that Messenger is a lean spin-off of the original Facebook mobile app, there theoretically should be some room for added features before the app gets hard to use. Facebook recently made clear that WhatsApp will be kept clean and lean, while Messenger is where a lot of new functionality can be expected.

That’s why it is likely that Marcus’ explanation is only part of the reasoning. Apart from usability and performance aspects, the off-site platform approach has another advantage: It’s easy for developers to connect their existing mobile apps with Messenger. They are spared from yet another platform they have to create a specific version of their service for. Instead they can take what they have and even use Messenger to drive traffic to their iOS and Android app. Many participants in chat conversations will be exposed to these apps for the first time.

Facebook weighed the pros and cons of both possible options and decided that right now, the off-site platform should be prefered. But that does not need to be the final word. Because the cons are obvious. Not only that the need to go through the App Store or Play Store is a an obstacle for users. There is also the general fact that Facebook, a highly ambitious giant which is trying to establish a new major mobile platform with Messenger, cannot be happy about the fact that it is so depended on the two other gatekeepers.

This desire to step outside the rules of the existing mobile ecosystem was the motivation behind the creation of the Android launcher Facebook Home. After this endeavour turned out to be failure, Facebook has not shown any more public interest in competing directly with the mobile OS. Instead, the company opted for a strategy of unbundling and acquiring mobile apps, trying to capture as much space on people’s home screens and thus share of mind as possible. That philosophy has worked fairly well and somewhat will be continued with the Messenger platform.

Nevertheless, there is a clear conflict of interest between what Facebook wants and what Google (with Android) and Apple (with iOS) want. Especially now that commerce and payments are increasingly becoming more important for Facebook and the Messenger.

As I mentioned in the beginning: For now Messenger platform apps can only publish photos, videos, GIFs and sound snippets in Messenger conversations. But sooner or later Facebook will open the platform for other types of content too, as well as for games, live streams and other kinds of online services. I’d argue that sooner or later, it would make sense for Facebook to once more trying to push Google and Apple aside and to create its own mobile operating system. If only to be able to launch a transaction system for all Messenger (and Facebook) enabled apps. This is still missing. Currently, with Google and Apple taking 30 percent cuts of all in-app-purchases of digital goods and services, it’s hard if not impossible to create.

Samsung has come under a lot of pressure lately. The Chinese smartphone shooting-star Xiaomi already caught the attention of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Both manufacturers would present attractive hardware partners for Facebook to establish a still fictionary but probably inevitable “Messenger OS”.

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