Messaging and mobile platforms

One of the fundamental things that smartphones changed about the internet is that the smartphone itself is a social platform:

  • Every app can access your address book, getting an instant social graph. The phone number in particular acts as a unique social identifier
  • They can access the photo library and camera directly (and location), making sharing easy 
  • Push notifications mean you don’t need people to keep checking your site (or open emails).  
  • Every app is just two taps away on the home screen, which makes switching services easier, and also drives a trend for focused, single-purpose apps over apps that do everything - it's easier to find a feature as an icon on your home screen than as an option in a sub-menu of the Facebook app

So joining a new service from a different company is much easier than it was on the desktop and, crucially, using more than one at a time is also much easier. People can swap apps in and out for different behaviours or content types or social groups, on top of that underlying platform, and they do it all the time. And so there has been an explosion of apps trying to take advantage of this. Facebook bought two of the biggest, Instagram and WhatsApp, but it can't buy them all. 

Looking at all of these apps, I think there are three threads that we can pull out:

  • More or less plain vanilla person-to-person text messaging, with extras like group chat, pictures, stickers and voice clips etc added on. The big global winner so far has clearly been WhatsApp, which dominates outside the USA and East Asia (and is doing 50% more message volume than the entire global SMS system), but Facebook Messenger is doing pretty well too, mostly in the USA. I'd expect relatively little new innovation to happen here now, and most of it to be in the next two categories:
  • New pieces of psychology - new behaviors or attitudes that an app can enable or ride on. Sitting on that underlying social platform, an app that finds one of these can go viral. Examples include Instagram, Snapchat, Yo, Yik Yak, Secret or Meerkat. The challenge for these is to find a behavior that's different and compelling enough to create that growth, but not weird or specific enough to be a gimmick or a fad and flame out, or at least to evolve beyond that specificity once the growth is there, which one could argue Snapchat is doing
  • Platforms - messaging apps that aim to broaden the UX beyond pure person-to-person messaging into a development environment. WeChat is the big example here, with 500m users, almost all in China, while Line in Japan and Kik in the USA are also significant. 

The potential to turn messaging into a platform is the Trojan Horse that drives a lot of the excitement in the sector. It's one thing to sell stickers and quite another to sell users: can you use social to spread content and acquire users, and to solve the problem of app installation? Can it become the third runtime and the third channel on the phone, after the web and native apps?

The first big success here has been WeChat, which has 500m MAUs, almost all in China. WeChat has built a messaging client that's also a development environment, using web views and APIs so you can build services within the app that can access location, identity, payment and other tools from within the app. You can send money, order a cab, book a restaurant or track and manage an ecommerce order, all within one social app. So, like the web, you don't need to install new apps to access these services, but, unlike the web, they can also use push and messaging and social to spread. This is Facebook's old desktop platform, more or less, but on mobile. 

The common criticism of this approach is that this is 'just a portal', and that integrating lots of different services into one app is doomed in the same way that Yahoo on the desktop was doomed to be replaced by more powerful and focused single-purpose products. The more subtle version of this is that WeChat only works in China because the market structure is different - no vertical category killers (Google, Facebook, Amazon) and instead parallel, horizontal competition by large competing companies. WeChat is providing the 'primitives' that you can't get elsewhere. This may be true - but it may also be that WeChat (and similar products such as Baidu Maps, which also has deep service integration) show us what the rest of the world might look like if the big portals had executed better. That is, is this what Yahoo would have achieved if it hadn't gone to sleep for a decade? *

A lot of people thought that Facebook would clone this, but it's actually done something quite different. Rather than trying to turn Messenger itself into a development environment, it's opened it up to become a channel for anything else on your phone and the web. This means that it's addressing both the platform thread and the viral apps thread outlined above, and that rather than WeChat, it's going after the iOS and Android notifications panel. 

First, if you have an idea for a great type of content for messaging - a new piece of psychology that might go viral - your iPhone or Android app can now insert that directly into a thread inside the Messenger app, and your app can be invoked directly from within the Messenger app. Messenger has a list of featured apps (with links out to the App Store or Google Play) and, crucially, each piece of content posted into a message thread comes with a link to install the app - a viral hook. Facebook has made an API for the 'sticker button', and turned it into an acquisition channel for third party apps, and is now letting the entire internet compete for that slot, with itself as gatekeeper.

 The WeChat model achieves some of this, avoiding the app installation problem itself by putting everything into web views within the WeChat app, but that puts a cap on how sophisticated you can get - it's hard to make video clips with web apps. Facebook is trying to square the circle - rich native code to make cool stuff, yet no need for an app installation for it to spread. 

This is a great jujitsu move, and very seductive. Facebook is trying to co-opt the next Snapchat. Yes, the smartphone is a social platform that makes it easy to use multiple social apps, but you still have to get someone over the hurdle of installing the app in the first place, and they have to get all of their friends to install it too so that they have someone to send to.  Facebook is trying to bypass that - you can drop your content straight into the existing Messenger install base (600m MAUs). Now just one person can get a cool app and send messages to their friends even if their friends don't have it, and if it's cool enough they can tap on the link and install it too.

So acquisition is much easier, but they're Facebook's users, and always will be. And since there will be dozens of apps fighting it out for that slot, Snapchat and any other new stand-alone network will be competing against all of those apps - against the whole app store. This means that Facebook is trying to reset some of the dynamics I described at that beginning of this piece - it's trying to avoid the 'whack-a-mole' problem of having to buy cool new messaging companies (Instagram, WhatsApp) by getting those communication forms to happen inside Messenger instead, using Facebook's own social graph instead of the phone's address book.  And as I said, this is seductive - Facebook removes a major barrier to growth, but owns your users and has a history of ruthlessness in dealing partners who build on its platforms. Join, get growth 'easily' and give Facebook control, or stay out and struggle for installs against Facebook and all its partners as well. 

The second part of the Messenger announcement is just as interesting - Facebook will also let websites send messages directly into Messenger, without having their own apps installed on your phone, if you logged into that website with Facebook when you placed the order. So you can order shoes and get a message in Messenger that they're out of stock and be offered an alternative. This is another attack on email (and Gmail) and another attempt to pull your communications and commerce into the Facebook data platform. And again, if you do this you get richer and more engaging communication with your users, and don't need them to install your app, but your access is entirely controlled by Facebook.  

If you take all of this together, it looks like Facebook is trying not to compete with other messaging apps but to relocate itself within the landscape of both messaging and the broader smartphone interaction model. Facebook Home tried to take over the home screen and lock screen - Messenger is trying to take over the notifications panel, by pulling those notifications inside its own app, and to co-opt large chunks of future communications developments on the phone.  

This makes perfect sense - notifications themselves are becoming that third runtime. That pull-down panel aggregates activity from everything on your phone, and Google and Apple have made notifications actionable and given them payloads. One can already look at an iPhone or Android phone's notification screen and ask - 'where's the algorithm filtering this?' And in a sense, the notification panel fills the 'cross platform compatibility' role that some people would like to see in messaging - all the notifications for all my messaging apps show up there. More and more, one's primary interaction with any app, social messaging or otherwise, is a little pop-up with a button or two. So shouldn't that get a native, messaging-focused UI? Instead of replacing stand-alone apps with light-weight versions built inside a messaging app, is it better for rich, actionable messages from native apps to be aggregated into a notification panel? Once you have that runtime, do you need an actual stand-alone app on the actual phone itself, or can you send those messages - really, little applets, down from the cloud? Do you turn apps into messages and notifications, or messages and notifications into apps?

Meanwhile, smart watches (to the extent that they take off) reinforce a model of atomic units of content with a handful of possible actions, and of glancing at a few key items rather than submerging yourself in a dedicated UI. So after unbundling sites from the web browser into apps, notifications take things further, unbundling each unit of content or action - each verb or noun - into a separate atom. So you can order a car with a flick of your wrist and a tap or two, instead of fishing your phone out of your pocket, unlocking it, loading an app and navigating the UI. 

This obviously leads one to ask what the platform owners themselves are doing. Should this be done by Facebook or the platform owners (the same question as for deep linking last year)? Do Apple or Google introduce an algorithmic filter to manage the flow in the system-wide notification panel, and does that compare to Facebook's lethal power over newsfeed partners? They're some of the way there. Both Apple and Google have perfectly solid mobile messaging apps that are not development platforms in their own right, and have done a lot of work on notifications in their smartphone OSs yet clearly have lots more to do. And Apple already lets websites send push notifications on OS X, while Google is clearly pushing Chrome hard as a development environment and so notifications from the web there would also make sense. 

So we can see some building blocks, but we can also see obstacles. The obvious one is that neither has the kind of desktop social presence that would make it easy for them to drive personalized push motivations for web to mobile - you're not logged into anything from Apple or Google (pace Plus) when you shop on the desktop web. On the other hand, you're always logged in on Android, and Apple has shown plenty of hints that it might see TouchID as a universal identity platform, and of course, they do have your address book. So Apple or Google could easily let an app send a push notification to a friend who doesn't have that app. Meanwhile as mobile devices zoom past half of time spent on commerce sites and a third of the transaction value, a web identity platform might matter less. There are other interesting possibilities too, if one thinks where Now or Passbook might fit. 

The core issue across all of this, I think, is how much is still totally unsettled. We spent 20 years in which the mainstream internet experience was a web browser, mouse and keyboard, and over a decade in which Google was the way you navigated. Smartphones ended all that, but we haven't settled on a new model, and the idea we'll all revert back to the comfortable, simple model of the web seems increasingly remote. Even within messaging, the  model is still in flux. I wrote above about the search for new psychologies, but there are deeper architectural questions than anonymity or filters, which you can see in SnapChat's disappearing messages or Meerkat and Periscope's use of live. What will the next blow-up model be -  synchronous or not? One to one or one to many? Feed based or thread-based? Algorithmic filter or endless stream? Rich client or rich message? Runtime or deep links? That may be the real problem for Facebook - the next messaging thing may not be messaging at all. 

 

* As an aside, it's challenging for anyone outside China to have a firm view on WeChat given that almost no-one has actually used it - the most interesting features only appear if you run the app with Chinese language settings. I don’t read Chinese myself, and I’m always reluctant to have a strong view on a product I’ve not used, though this is a minority position.