After previous warnings, Facebook last week made the contentious move to force its iPhone and Android app users to “fast switch” to the Messenger app for all future messaging. The outcome will be worth watching for anyone developing mobile apps.
Local media players are increasingly faced with decisions about app functionality. That includes whether to unbundle features to specialized apps (think gas prices), or to federate within one. Foursquare is the latest local player to chose the former.
Since we dissected Foursquare’s two-app strategy, it redesigned its main app and began forcing users to download and use Swarm for check-ins. This is similar to Facebook’s forced migration for messenger, and some argue it’s not going well so far. But we’ll give it time.
For Facebook, Messenger’s feature set goes deeper than the messaging feature within the main Facebook app, including stickers, multimedia and sound effects. And that standalone focus/functionality are key drivers for the power move.
Or as Mark Zuckerberg put it: “ We found that having [messaging] as a second-class thing inside the Facebook app makes it so there’s more friction to replying to messages, so we would rather have people be using a more focused experience for that.”
The subtext is that the greater functionality endemic to a standalone app will be a key weapon in the messaging arms race underway (Snapchat, Line, etc.). Whatsapp should be acknowledged as part of the formula, but that’s a post for another day.
Meanwhile, the forced migration is a potentially unpleasant means to a desired end. It will be a band-aid-ripping moment for Facebook. But the outcome it believes is worth it, such as 20% faster response times and more multimedia sharing in Messenger.
There’s also a bit of a practical angle for Facebook. Product goals, UI, code maintenance, and version updates will be easier, and better for quality control if unified in its own app. Otherwise features are tempered by a lowest common denominator across platforms.
Back to the unbundling question, Facebook has done the same with Poke, Paper, Cover, Slingshot; and the same concept applies for acquired apps like Instagram. I keep saying that Facebook is doing the marketplace a huge favor with this experimentation.
In other words, the outcome of its app unbundling generally will be an important lesson for the rest of us. It could finally answer the question of whether users want less apps that bundle functionality; or more apps that each do one thing and do it well?
Facebook’s reasons for believing the latter are well founded, data driven, and argued well — so much so, that others in the midst of unbundling (like Foursquare) cite Facebook for supporting evidence. However its fleet of unbundled apps don’t yet scream success.
With the exception of Instagram, which was acquired rather than spun off, Poke, Messenger, Cover, Paper, Slingshot (and now Bolt), aren’t necessarily at the point where they should be held up as shining examples of unbundling wins.
In other words, we shouldn’t all rush to unbundle just because Facebook says so. Indeed its very own efforts have failed to affirm the virtues of unbundling. But there’s still time for Zuckerberg to be proven right, especially if app usage is forced a la Messenger.
Regardless of the outcome, any moves Facebook makes in mobile are notable. Given its massive reach and growing share of the ad revenue pie, the lab results from its standalone app experiments should be viewed by mobile developers as a lesson in what works.
This free lesson for the marketplace is further emboldened by its sample size. Facebook has 1.07 billion mobile monthly users, 654 million daily mobile users and 62 percent of ad revenue from mobile. In other words watch closely — especially for its moves in local.
Michael Boland is senior analyst and VP of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.