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Behind Facebook Messenger's plan to be an app platform

Chat is just the beginning.

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A year ago, Facebook announced at its F8 developer conference that Messenger would evolve into more than a simple chat app. For one thing, you'd be able to chat with businesses and stores to, say, get an update on an order or make reservations at a restaurant. But the big reveal was that Facebook was turning Messenger into a platform for other apps. The initial integration was with GIF keyboards and games, but fast-forward a year later and you can see the idea starting to take shape. You can now request an Uber or a Lyft right within Messenger or share a song with your chat buddy via Spotify. Soon you might even be able to book a flight or pay for store purchases -- all without leaving Messenger.

The question is: Why? Why would you as a user want all of this integration? Why not just download Uber and request a car that way? Meanwhile, why would a developer or a business want to bake its services into Messenger? Wouldn't it prefer that users download its apps instead? Last, why does Facebook want to add all of these features anyway and potentially weigh itself down with so many added complications?

There are several answers to these questions, but it all starts with a single fact: Messaging is now the No. 1 activity most people do on their smartphones. A Pew Internet study published last year found that fully 97 percent of smartphone owners used text messaging at least once a week. Messaging was also found to be the most frequently used feature, with smartphone owners reporting that they had used text messaging within the past hour. Further, 35 percent of smartphone users in the US use some kind of messaging app to communicate.

Facebook's own stats confirm that. In the last quarter of 2015, the company reported 900 million monthly WhatsApp users and 800 million monthly Messenger users. "We have seen messaging volume more than double in the past year," Frerk-Malte Feller, a director of product management for Facebook who heads up Messenger's business initiatives, told Engadget. "Businesses want to be where the people are."

This is certainly why Lyft wants to be involved. "As the heart of so many of our users' day-to-day communications, [Messenger] felt like a natural fit to make getting from place to place as simple as typing 'hello' to a friend," a Lyft spokesperson told Engadget.

From the user standpoint, having a third-party service like Uber integrated into Messenger bypasses the whole rigmarole of signing up for an account. "You're already registered on Messenger using your Facebook identity," said Feller. "When you start using a new service, you don't have to fill out all those forms ... You can just use the identity you have on Messenger."

More importantly, however, it also means one fewer app to download. Sure, downloading an app sounds like a pretty trivial activity, but it's still an extra step, one that a lot of users are unwilling to take. A recent Nielsen study showed that despite the increased number of apps in both Google Play and Apple's App Store over the past few years, people still generally use the same number of apps -- about 26.7 per month. But while the total number of applications doesn't seem to have increased, the amount of time spent on them has gone up -- about a 63 percent rise in two years.

We're not as interested in trying new apps, but the apps we do have, we're using more.

This means we're not as interested in trying new apps, but the apps we do have, we're using more. It's a scenario that's ripe for enriching existing apps -- like the heavily used Messenger -- with additional features. As for businesses, it's a chance to increase awareness without having to rely on app downloads.

Beyond that, Messenger offers a valuable social component that most existing apps don't have. With the Uber integration, for example, you can message an address to a friend, who can then tap that address to request a car. Alternately, if you're already in an Uber, you can use Messenger to share your location with a friend so she can see when you're going to arrive. All of this is on top of the ability for you to directly message the company if you're having any issues. And because this is Messenger and not an email or a phone call, whoever's reading your messages will be able to see past conversations to gain a context for the existing message thread.

The kinds of interactions are richer too. Spotify's integration, for example, offers a more seamless sharing experience than just copying and pasting a link. "It's a huge upgrade," a Spotify spokesperson told Engadget. "[It allows] users to deep link into Spotify to consume content."

There is some precedent to all of this. Mobile messaging apps in Asia have been experimenting with these added features for a while now. Line, for example, has billed itself as a "social entertainment platform" and has branched out into offering a music service plus a news feed, both of which are easily accessible from within the main messaging app. It also offers games, much like Messenger is currently doing, and it's even going as far as becoming a phone carrier.

Of course, adding third-party services is just the beginning; Messenger's ambitions go much deeper. As a recent report from The Information indicates, Facebook's chat app could soon have plenty of other features like calendar syncing, News Feed-style status updates and the ability to directly share quotes from articles. Add the M personal assistant to the equation and it's easy to imagine a future where Messenger could be the central hub of smartphones everywhere. Perhaps even more so than Facebook itself.

There is one potential downside, however, and that's the arrival of advertising. After all, that's Facebook's bread and butter, and the company is naturally going to want to slap ads on an app that's getting this popular. With all of these business partnerships, it won't be surprising if Facebook ends up allowing companies to spam you with the occasional advertisement, especially if you voluntarily added these integrations yourself.

"The feedback from people in the last 12 months have been strong," said Feller. "It really has all the right attributes and characteristics." And with F8's annual developer conference coming up next week, we imagine there will be even more to come.

Raised in the tropics of Malaysia, Nicole Lee arrived in the United States in search of love, happiness, and ubiquitous broadband. That last one is still a dream, but two out of three isn't bad. Her love for words and technology reached a fever pitch in San Francisco, where she learned you could make a living writing about gadgets, video games, and the Internet. Truly, a dream come true. Other interests include baseball, coffee, cooking, and chasing after her precocious little cat.
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