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During the opening keynote at Facebook’s F8 developers’ conference, you got the sense that there were a lot of light-bulbs going off in a lot of tech journalists’ heads. The moment that got those light bulbs burning was Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Messenger would cease to be “just another messaging app” and would instead become a platform.
The new Messenger platform will allow its more than 600-million users to create and share content from third-party tools as well as communicate directly with businesses rather than calling or emailing them. The more than 40 apps available on Messenger from the start will let people enhance their conversations with GIFs, photos, videos and audio clips, among other things. It’s also opened up the SDK for Messenger, allowing people to build their own apps.
It would be easy for skeptics to suggest that the platform could be a flop, just like Home was. But that was different. That was Facebook trying to bully its way to the center of your mobile experience. It was before the great unbundling had really kicked into gear.
Now, as Zuckerberg pointed out at the conference, Facebook is now “a family of apps” which do a lot of things, rather than a single social network trying to do everything. And for a variety of reasons, that’s very important.
In order to start unpacking those reasons, it’s probably best to take a look at the revamped Messenger platform.
Bring on the developers, get social with business
We’ve already mentioned that Facebook has opened Messenger up to third-party developers, but we haven’t gone into too much detail about why that’s important. As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine notes, opening up the platform allows developers to build things people would like to do on it but which it doesn’t have the time or resources to do itself.
As was the case when Facebook opened up its first platform, developers get a pre-existing audience, virality and ways to make money (as Zynga did for a few years). Facebook meanwhile gets added levels of engagement from the platform apps.
Ultimately, the idea is that Messenger will be as personal to you as the apps on your smartphone screen. As Zuckerberg noted “People need to be able to share what matters to them with all the different groups of people they care about this is how we give people the power to make the world more open and connected.”
In the messaging space, it’s a model that’s been adopted effectively by Asian apps such Line and WeChat.
There are however some concerns. Facebook’s Messenger partners aren’t exactly what you’d call well-known and it’s not exactly clear whether any big brand names not owned by Facebook will want to build dedicated Messenger apps.
One feature that most businesses will be interested in though is the one allowing users to communicate with businesses. With Businesses on Messenger, people can have rich and personal conversations with businesses. For example, after purchasing something from a website, people can choose to receive updates in Messenger and continue their conversation with the business in the app.
Once there, Facebook claims, people will be able to receive relevant messages from the business including order confirmations and shipping status updates, and will be able to take basic actions like modifying, tracking or returning an order. People will also have the option to ask a business questions, make requests and get quick responses. These interactions and features are unified in a single, ongoing thread between the person and the business.
Most businesses have implemented some or all of these features for some time now, but making the process instant means that anyone who adopts the feature will have to seriously up their game. Check out the point by Memeburn contributor Paul Armstrong:
— Paul Armstrong (@paul__armstrong) March 25, 2015
Welcome to the family
Of course, Messenger is just one member of the family. And there’s more than one way to get into it. Facebook wants third parties feeding into it from every angle. Just prior to F8, Facebook confirmed that it would start hosting content from partner publishers such as Buzzfeed and the New York Times. At F8, it announced that publishers would also be able to embed Facebook videos on their sites. That widens Facebook’s influence outside of its own platform and makes it that much more lucrative to advertisers.
In many ways, it’s the approach that’s made Google so successful. It’s about building partnerships and convincing the partners that come on-board that they’re better off with Facebook than going it alone.
Keeping things sweet
Thing is, if Facebook’s going to make this work, it has to look after its partners better than it has in the past. Zynga, the most famous example of Facebook partnership success, tanked when other social gaming companies started to crowd it out. Once Facebook stopped promoting News Reader apps from the likes of The New York Times and The Guardian, they were burned. And in some cases, when Facebook saw apps getting successful, it built its own versions, effectively rendering them pointless.
But, and this is a big but, it may not have to be quite so mercenary this time. With a family of apps, rather than a single platform, it can afford to tinker and experiment. And if one aspect of the business doesn’t work out brilliantly, it’s unlikely to take everything else with it.