Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg has been on a mission to unbundle the company's many services and expand far beyond the single application that transformed it into the largest media platform that's ever existed. Zuckerberg says the changes represent an evolution in Facebook's approach to how it connects people around the world.
"Facebook used to be this single blue app and it did a lot of different things," Zuckerberg said during his opening keynote last week at F8, the company's annual developers conference. "Now Facebook is a family of apps."
Facebook reaches massive scale with apps
The number of people who use the Facebook family of apps is remarkable. More than 1.4 billion users access the core Facebook platform on a monthly basis, and it's only a matter of time before the company's other apps also hit the billion-user mark. More specifically, about 700 million people use Groups at least once a month, another 700 million use WhatsApp, 600 million people use Messenger, and 300 million use Instagram at least one time per month.
"We're building this family so we can offer unique world-class experiences for all of the ways that people want to share, because people need to be able to express everything that matters to them with all of the different groups of people that they care about," Zuckerberg said.
User behaviors change with the channels and methods in which they share content with others. Zuckerberg says the change represents the "biggest shift that we've made in our strategy of helping to connect people in many years."
The majority of social activity used to consist of text-based status updates and wall posts, but photographs and other visual content eventually supplanted words as the communication method of choice. Zuckerberg thinks video will become the dominant format within five years and predicts more immersive content, such as virtual and augmented reality, will be the most popular medium by 2025. As such, Facebook is preparing for a future in which people will share all different kinds of content with many different types of people, Zuckerberg says, and one platform will not meet all the social media needs for all people.
The rise of Messenger as a platform
Facebook manages and controls at least four distinct platforms today, and its newest platform is being built around Messenger, its aptly named messaging service. The company last week unveiled plans to let businesses and developers integrate their services and popular features with Facebook Messenger.
David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook, says emotion and expression are core to the way people communicate, but modern tools leave these qualities out of the communication process. Inventions such as the telegraph, telephone, email and text messages are remarkable because they let individuals stay in touch, but they also lack the ability to share emotion, according to Marcus.
Facebook is opening Messenger APIs so businesses and developers can bring personality to the shopping and communication experiences under a single app. More than 40 apps for the Messenger platform will be available at launch, and businesses including Everlane and Zulily will soon be able to have real-time conversations with their customers via Messenger.
"We truly feel that together we have a shot at reinventing how a billion people communicate every day," Marcus says.
Different apps for different purposes ... for now
As more and more apps splinter off into various platforms and integrate their core services with outside developers, however, industry watchers are wondering how long these platforms will stand on their own without a clear connection to the core Facebook platform.
Mary Meeker, an analyst and partner with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, gave rise to this notion during a rare chat with the three Facebook executives in charge of WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger.
"There's a theory that in five years all your products are going to morph into one. The name might be WhatsInstaMessage," Meeker told the trio on stage at F8. "There are messaging apps in other parts of the world that have everything with the kitchen sink thrown in. How do you prevent that from happening and how do you make those choices about not adding more stuff?"
The head of each platform offered a unique take on that question, but also shared insights into the individual roles they serve in an increasingly fragmented world of communication and media consumption.
WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton thinks the decision comes down to users. "I'm a purist to the user experience," Acton said. "If a user were to write in and say, 'Hey, I want a unified experience,' then I'd give it a much stronger consideration, but the users really aren't writing in asking for that."
Most users care more about bugs fixes, the flow of messaging and the overall reliability of WhatsApp, Acton says, but still he doesn't discount the notion that many of the company's different apps could eventually morph into one. "When the time comes I think we'll do it an intelligent and thoughtful fashion, but in the meantime I think we're going to continue to execute well and grow our populations."
All of Facebook's apps serve a different audience and set of objectives, according to Mike Krieger, cofounder and technical lead at Instagram.
"I think people have a very particular mindset when they go into Instagram and a very particular mindset when they go into WhatsApp and a very particular one with Messenger," Krieger says. "That's ultimately, I think, what distinguishes them."
He says the WhatsApp icon on his phone is his "tunnel to a very particular group of people that I communicate with incessantly." His connections and conversations are Messenger are equally distinct. The different apps will, and should, remain autonomous for as long as people come to them to reach different people, engage in specialized communications or share and seek unique objectives, according to Krieger.
Platforms could merge when time is right
Marcus, the head of Facebook's Messenger platform, says the strategy and implementation of third-party development on Messenger is an indication of how each app in Facebook's family stands on its own.
"I think the way we did platform is to not bloat the app," he says. "[W]e could have built a lot of those capabilities into Messenger, but it would have made it slower and less reliable and bloated, and we don't want that. Since the experience happens in their apps and not inside of Messenger, we can have the best of both worlds by doing it this way."
If Facebook's plan for a family of apps stays constant it will be because users embrace these differences and have no interest in seeing Facebook become an all-encompassing platform that tries to be everything to everyone.
WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger serve different roles and audiences today, but if those lines begin to blur Facebook will almost certainly fuse themselves together, in what will be one more profound shift that could redefine how people and businesses communicate in the digital age.