Facebook to add ‘secret conversations’ to Messenger app


Messenger often took a back seat to the limelight enjoyed by WhatsApp, the messaging app that Facebook had bought for $19 billion.

And Messenger’s capabilities were so limited that you could not send friends an animated GIF of a dancing Shiba Inu, as you could with many other messaging services.

But since mid-2014, Facebook has been playing a furious game of catch-up with Messenger. That June, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, hired a PayPal executive, David Marcus, to take over Messenger and build it into a world-class competitor.

The company has added a string of features to the service, including letting people send money to friends through the app, pull up a voice or video call, or order a private car from inside the app.

On Friday, Facebook said it would also begin testing “secret conversations” inside Messenger, a feature that offers end-to-end encryption on some messages to be read only on the two mobile devices that users are communicating with.

While it stops short of the full encryption that other messaging services like WhatsApp have adopted, it gives Messenger a heightened mode of security that Facebook hopes will attract global audiences to download the app.

“The fact that we have 1.65 billion people on Facebook already makes Messenger the best live, self-updating address book in the world,” Mr. Marcus said in an interview. “Because of the scale of our network, I feel like we really have a shot at this.”

The new security feature highlights Facebook’s ambitions for Messenger, which now sees more than 900 million regular monthly users, up from 200 million in early 2014. Roughly half of all American smartphone owners use the Messenger app, according to industry estimates, and Facebook is aiming to capture greater numbers in international markets.

Most of Messenger’s success has been in English-speaking areas like North America and much of Europe, the company said, as well as Australia and large parts of Southeast Asia.

The moves put Facebook Messenger increasingly into competition with messaging apps that have risen to prominence in their particular regions or countries.

WeChat, the mobile messaging app owned by the Chinese internet giant Tencent, dominates China. Kakao, another app, is widely used throughout South Korea, while the Line smartphone app is popular in Japan.

“Just look at how successful WeChat has become for Tencent,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an internet analyst with eMarketer. “That’s the kind of ubiquity Facebook wants to achieve with Messenger.”

And when combined with WhatsApp, which has more than 1 billion users, Facebook has now become a juggernaut in messaging worldwide. While WhatsApp and Messenger are run separately, both provide a window into how people communicate and their habits in payments, digital entertainment and more.

Facebook started Messenger in 2011. The app emulated some of the capabilities that could be done within Facebook’s social network, where people could press a message button to exchange communications with one another. That message feature within the main social networking app was disabled in 2014, pushing people to turn to Messenger. Two months later, Mr. Zuckerberg hired Mr. Marcus to run Messenger.

Mr. Marcus soon quickened the pace of product releases at Messenger, adding peer-to-peer money transfers, the ability to hire an Uber car through the app and support for GIFs. By late 2015, Messenger had more than 700 million monthly regular users.

“He has this keen sense of how to build a product and customer experience that is uncommon in Silicon Valley,” Dana Stalder, a venture capitalist at Matrix Partners, said of Mr. Marcus. Matrix invested in Zong, a start-up Mr. Marcus founded; Zong was acquired by eBay in 2011 for nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

Even as Messenger has been drawing new users, it has yet to make money. The app is free to download and Mr. Zuckerberg has said Facebook typically does not try to generate revenue until a service has a billion users.

One clue as to how Messenger might eventually make money surfaced in April at Facebook’s developer conference, when Mr. Zuckerberg gave some of the spotlight to Mr. Marcus. Mr. Marcus used the event to announce Messenger’s plans to bring more businesses to the platform with the introduction of “bots,” essentially a way for companies to create new ways to interact with customers using Facebook.

A recent American Express Messenger bot, for instance, may send someone a Facebook message with restaurant recommendations for a city they have recently bought plane tickets to visit using their American Express card. The CNN bot sends news stories based on topics a user is interested in. Airline service bots could handle customer problems in one thread.

Some of Messenger’s early bot offerings have been criticized as half-baked and underdeveloped. Facebook said that while early versions of bots may not be as impressive as the hype, more than 21,000 developers have signed up to develop bots since the platform’s introduction.

Adding more encryption with secret conversations, which Facebook plans to roll out widely by the end of the summer, is aimed at coaxing people to use the service for more communication. Someone could set a message to disappear after a period of time, which may make them more willing to exchange personal information with a company’s customer service representative on Messenger. People have to opt in to use secret conversations, the company said.

To keep Messenger’s momentum going, Mr. Marcus said he expected the fast pace of product releases for the app to continue.

“To make Messenger your preferred and primary communication platform, we have to build capabilities different from anyone else,” he said.

Source: New York Times