The Real Reason Facebook Is Forcing You To Download Messenger

08/13/2014 01:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2014
David Ramos via Getty Images

A little over a year ago, Facebook launched Facebook Home, software designed to take over some smartphones completely. It was a huge flop, but the message was clear: Facebook was on a mission to dominate the time you spend on your phone.

The company's recent controversial move to force iPhone and Android owners who want to keep chatting with their friends to download Facebook Messenger, its three-year-old standalone messaging app, is evidence it's still trying to hog your time. And if it can't take over your entire phone, it is going to bombard you with different apps until the effect is more or less the same.

Facebook says it's forcing people to move to Messenger because the app is faster and has more features. But the real reason is that the company wants to protect itself by diversifying its offerings. Simply put, Facebook doesn't want to end up like another Myspace, all but abandoned for the next big thing.

"Imagine a future where the News Feed becomes less important to people," said Nate Elliott, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, a research company. "They don't want people to stop using Messenger just because they stop going to the News Feed. And that's the risk they run if it's all bundled together."

It's a strategy Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and CEO, has alluded to in recent months. Earlier this year, the company announced Creative Labs, a unit dedicated to creating new apps that "support the diverse ways people want to connect and share."

"So what we’re doing with Creative Labs is basically unbundling the big blue app," Zuckerberg told The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo in an interview in April.

"I think on mobile, people want different things," he said. "In mobile there’s a big premium on creating single-purpose first-class experiences."

Facebook's unbundling of Messenger fits with a series of moves the company has made over the past couple of years.

In 2012, it spent $1 billion to buy Instagram. That seemed like a pretty big number until February, when Facebook announced it would buy the popular messaging app WhatsApp for $19 billion. Since then it has also bought Moves, a fitness-tracking app, and Oculus VR, a company that makes virtual reality technology.

For many of the companies it bought in the past, Facebook incorporated their technology into existing products and/or shuttered the services. But Instagram, WhatsApp, Moves and Oculus will continue to live on their own (though it's unlikely they'll be immune from Facebook's influence).

It's probably what Facebook would have done with Snapchat, the hugely popular ephemeral messaging app, if Snapchat hadn't reportedly spurned a $3 billion offer from the company last fall.

So if (or when) you get tired of scrolling through pictures of your friends' kids on the News Feed, you'll log into Facebook less -- but you'll likely still use Facebook, because you'll use Messenger and WhatsApp to communicate, Instagram to share photos, Moves to track how far you've walked, and any other app Facebook buys or designs in the future.

"Having individual apps that fill a wide range of needs, no matter how different those needs, can help Facebook dominate the mobile experience," said Elliott. "They want to offer a response to every possible mobile moment. Putting each of their tools into a separate app will insulate them should users lose interest in any one of the things Facebook offers."

And because Facebook is a giant advertising company, the more you use its apps, the more it knows about you.

"Facebook is in the business of selling advertising, so the more touchpoints they have with their users across various apps and services, the more advertising revenue they stand to generate," said Gene Dolgin, a senior manager at Endeavour Partners, a consulting firm.

The strategy seems to be working for Facebook -- four of the five top downloaded Android and iPhone apps in June, according to App Annie, an apps analytics company, are Facebook-owned, or will soon be Facebook-owned: Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. (The WhatsApp acquisition isn't yet completed, according to a Facebook spokesperson.)

Not all of Facebook's attempts to diversify, or "unbundle," have been successful, however. Facebook discontinued its Snapchat clone, Poke, and its Instagram rival, Camera, after they failed to catch on. Neither Slingshot, another attempt at an app with disappearing pictures, nor Paper, an app that mixes updates from your friends with news, have been hits with Facebookers.

But for now, people don't seem to be getting tired of tapping the blue icon and thumbing through the News Feed. The company reported that in the second quarter of the year, daily active users on mobile had increased 39 percent.

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