Facebook wants to turn its Messenger app into more than just a messaging app. At its F8 conference in San Francisco Wednesday, the company announced details on its much-rumored plans to integrate Messenger with purchases made on other sites, and to allow third-party developers to build apps that work within it.
Messenger users will soon be able to select from a list of services inside of the app. At launch, most of these apps help users create new content, like singing telegram app Ditty, GIF app Giphy, and voice app FlipLip Voice Changer. There’s also a fun special effects app available from J.J. Abrams and an ESPN app that provides users with sports GIFs. Facebook says 40 apps will be available today or in the days to come.
Facebook also has partnered with some retailers to pull customer interaction inside the Messenger app. During a demo on the website of clothing retailer Everlane, Messenger head David Marcus demonstrated how users could request an “enhanced receipt” that appears in the app, along with a message thread. Users can use this thread to track their packages and even initiate a new purchase. This thread lives in the same place as messages from friends. “We wanted businesses to be first-class citizens, like people,” Marcus says.
By making these changes, Facebook joins a trend of messaging apps expanding to do more than send messages. Chinese messaging app WeChat, for instance, is also an app for playing games and booking travel. South Korean startup KakaoTalk started with games and recently launched a payment platform. Line, popular in Japan, has a payment system. Snapchat allows users to send money to each other and has its sights set on becoming a content delivery system.
Messaging apps have the potential to become our main platforms in the future in the same way that social networks became the main platforms of the last several years. About 40% of mobile subscribers in the United States use an instant messaging app on their phones at least once a month. “The most popular apps that sustain themselves day after day, month after month, at the top of the leaderboard, are messengers,” Fred Wilson, managing partner at Union Square Ventures and an investor in messaging app Kik, recently told the New York Times. “Once they become full-blown ‘portals’ for mobile content and mobile commerce, we will really see how massive this opportunity is.”
Unless you count Instagram, which Facebook acquired in 2012, Messenger is by far Facebook’s most successful standalone app. Other efforts–home-screen replacement app Facebook Home, Snapchat competitor Poke, a second Snapchat-esque app called Slingshot, the beautifully designed newsfeed app Paper, a pseudonymous groups app called Rooms–have failed to take off. But Facebook says its Messenger app has 600 million users.
In July, the company began preparing to do more with that success. It removed the messaging feature from the main app, forcing users to instead use the Messenger app. The motives behind that forced eviction became more clear as evidence emerged that Facebook was planning to get into the mobile payments game. Messenger will soon allow users to connect their credit or debit cards to the service in order to pass money back and forth, a la Venmo.
Facebook is late to the platform-inside-a-messaging-app game. But while acquiring users has been the biggest problem for some other messaging apps, Facebook already has 874 million mobile users. It picked up another 700 million mobile users when it acquired WhatsApp. As usual, Facebook’s strength–and its advantage–lies in its numbers.