According to the New York Times, which first reported the news, the three services will continue as standalone apps as the technical underpinnings will be unified. The aim of the plans – scheduled to be completed in 2020 – will be also to allow cross-communication between the platforms for the first time.
It is here that the first complexity emerges. The project will require the efforts of thousands as they go to work at the fundamentals of three very different apps. Key to the shift is Mark Zuckerberg’s reported desire for all three apps to incorporate the kind of end-to-end encryption enjoyed by users of WhatsApp.
“We’re working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks”, Facebook said in a statement to the NYT, adding that users want “messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private.”
Facebook Inc. is the inarguable world leader in messaging services, largely thanks to the acquisition of WhatsApp in February of 2014. It is, according to a 2018 report by We Are Social and Hootsuite, the top messaging app in 128 countries around the world. Facebook Messenger is also popular: the top messenger app in 72 countries, including its native United States.
At the time of acquisition, both WhatsApp and a certain 2012 purchase: the now-mighty Instagram, were promised a certain level of autonomy. However, the explosive growth of both services has seen the importance of that autonomy diminish in Zuckerberg’s mind as his focus shifts to benefitting the entire “family of apps”. The encroachment from Facebook has led to the resignations of the founders of both services in autumn of last year.
For Facebook, the advantages of a unified back-end are clear. First, with a broader network, Facebook has a greater chance of netting traffic currently passing through Apple’s iMessage or Google’s Allo. But a convergence could also see some of Messenger’s commercial benefits transfer across to WhatsApp and Instagram, apps that have proved far harder to monetise than Facebook’s original product.
But the most complicated issue that this story speaks to is that of privacy. While the integration of encryption across apps is welcome from a company that has faced recent criticism for the fast-and-loose treatment of user data. This won’t be easy, however, because while Facebook requires the use of a real name, Instagram and WhatsApp do not. According to Praveen Sinha, the chief technology officer of Equality Labs, a nonprofit cybersecurity consulting organization, who spoke to Slate about the technical challenges of the plan, anonymity may be the price paid by users for Facebook’s unification.
There is also the challenge of intensified regulatory scrutiny if the move goes ahead, as Facebook’s monopoly position over messaging becomes more and more difficult to argue with. In analysis from Recode, the Rep. Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, is quoted as noting that Facebook’s unchallenged mergers at the time now seem “horizontal mergers that should have triggered antitrust scrutiny.”
Sourced from The New York Times, We Are Social/Hootsuite, TechCrunch, Slate, Recode, additional content by WARC staff