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Did Facebook Home just put the messaging app ecosystem on notice?

facebook chat heads header
Image used with permission by copyright holder

After a long wait, we’ve finally been introduced to Facebook’s long-game when it comes to mobile. Facebook Home signals, yet again, the Facebook wants to conquer mobile, which has proven to be tricky ground for the social network. This has been impacted massively by the onslaught of the messaging app-meets-social network-market – and Facebook is retaliating with Home and more specifically with Chat heads. The battle cry has been sounded, should the likes of WhatsApp and WeChat be worried?

Facebook is on the attack

To start, let’s take a look at some of Facebook’s rhetoric during the announcement. Facebook’s Director of Product Joey Flynn didn’t hold back critiquing the messaging app competition. 

Highlighting some general flaws with these services, Flynn explains that messaging apps require you to close the app you’re in right now to view a message. “You should really be able to talk to your friends no matter where you’re at on your phone and no matter what app you’re in,” he says. “And your friends shouldn’t just be siloed off into these apps. With Chat heads, you can talk to whomever and wherever on your phone.” Facebook wants us to think of Chat heads not as a competitor, but as the next evolution of messaging. In fact Facebook doesn’t even want its users to call Chat heads an app, saying it’s more like a layer.

Facebook hasn’t shied away from making competitive strikes in the market. It’s shut down the ability for a handful of apps to use the platform to find contacts, likely a move that not only had to do with limiting their audiences but with promoting the (then) future capabilities of Facebook Home. 

Messaging was threatening the future of Facebook

“At the core of any connected device, communication is key – may that be voice or messaging,” MessageMe co-founder Arjun Sethi says. Facebook knows that mobile adoption is growing; after all, communicating on mobile devices is hugely popular and users are looking for more and more ways to do that. It’s one of the reasons why mobile apps like MessageMe picked up 1 million users in just 12 days. It’s why Tango has 100 million users, LINE has 130 million users, Nimbuzz 150 million users, and WeChat 300 million. Clearly, Facebook has a few (million) reasons to go on the offensive.

The threat isn’t only about the numbers. Messaging apps have been experimenting with ways to expand their product into social media territory, threatening Facebook’s relevance on yet another level. It’s likely part of what motivated Facebook to invest in features like push-to-talk, free voice calling, account-free sign ups, and partnerships with telecom companies. Facebook’s defense was to build out all the core features that made messaging attractive to users in a bid to remain competitive even if it wasn’t innovating. The copycat method might not be pretty, but it’s proven.

Of course this all likely had to do with the advent of Chat heads as well. Nimbuzz CEO Vikas Saxena even suspects that messaging might be the entire reason Facebook built Facebook Home in the first place – the market is that meaningful.

Why Chat heads is Facebook’s big break

facebook chat heads in hand
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Facebook Messenger isn’t a particularly exciting app, nor innovative. It’s got all the basic features you need; nothing more, nothing less. Arguably its competitors are light years ahead in the messaging space. Not to mention there haven’t been any signs lately that Facebook was interested in beefing up Messenger features-wise, aside from its various telecom partnerships.

And with Chat heads, features-wise, there’s nothing all that special either. It’s in a sense a fork of Facebook Messenger; a Facebook spokesperson confirmed with us that Chat Heads was built from Messenger, in fact. In order to download Chat heads, you’ll be required to have Messenger on your phone.

Looking at early images, Chat heads is a derivation of Messenger; the look and function of the chat box hasn’t changed much. We’ve also confirmed with Facebook that VoIP, push-to-talk, and other features will eventually be made available directly from the Chat heads interface, although for now they can only be accessed via Messenger.

“You have full access to all Messenger features (including VoIP) through Chat heads by navigating through to messenger. VoIP won’t be available directly in the Chat heads interface at launch, but we eventually hope to support the full range of messages functionality from within the Chat heads interface,” a Facebook spokesperson told us.

What Facebook is really selling is the convenience of messaging, though. Facebook has done a clever and admittedly great job of taking messaging to the next level. The user experience looks smooth, and probably feels like a native Android feature. And because Chat head messages aren’t stuck inside of a button somewhere on your mobile device like with all messaging apps, chatting with your friends isn’t intrusive.

To recap, Chat Heads looks like a small bubble of your friend’s profile picture on your home screen that pops up whenever you send or receive a message. And the convenient part about this is that bubble hovers over every app or page so it’s always there and easily accessible without interrupting whatever it is you’re doing on your phone at the time. If the bubble is really annoying you can always swipe the Chat Head away. This is a significant different from the attention-needy methods of most messaging apps.

Are messaging apps battening their hatches?

We talked to a few executives from the messaging industry and the general consensus was that whatever Facebook’s strategy is, it’s not really anything of concern. Apparently, these predecessors are confident that convenience alone isn’t going to kill them off. Fans of LINE, MessageMe, Nimbuzz, have downloaded and stuck with these apps for a reason. First their friends are on it. Second, these apps have their unique value propositions that Facebook Messenger or Chat heads isn’t quite able to compete with. 

While LINE CEO Jeanie Han declined to comment about Facebook’s strategy, she did explain why LINE wasn’t just a messaging app. “LINE is a lifestyle platform that offers customers a greater degree of interaction. Through messaging, voice calling, stickers and the camera, our customers can interact with their friends and families in a number of ways. We’re taking digital communications beyond words on a screen and leveraging more emotional drivers to make communications more meaningful and fun.”

In fact Saxena’s sentiments echo this. While Facebook might be selling convenience, it doesn’t offer that extra “oomph” that makes an app worthwhile (which, arguably is because it isn’t an app – which traditional messaging apps feel works in their favor). Facebook Home doesn’t solve anything aside from putting Facebook in your face, he says.

Nimbuzz’s special sauce is that it enables third-party developers to create apps for Nimbuzz, which is a strategy that Facebook seems to be unwilling to entertain when it comes to Messenger. He adds that app developers are constantly looking for new outlets, which helps to grow the platform, and Nimbuzz has found that its apps developed by third-parties are actually quite valuable to users. For instance Nimbuzz has a third-party GRE preparation app that’s been downloaded 1 million times already in about a week.

Sethi, on the other hand, thinks of Facebook’s power play not as a threat to messaging apps, but rather a “logical evolution” of Facebook’s mobile strategy and one that’s more closely competitive to Apple or Google. “I would just think of any messaging service that’s home to any screen is similar to what Google and Apple already have in their OEM devices. Every OEM device has a service and they’re going to continue to iterate and continue to build in a different way that’s differentiating.”

The other dog in these apps court is that Facebook Home is only compatible with Android – and even then, it’s currently only available to select phones. This limitation is significant: Messaging apps are growing fast, and once users are ingrained in your service, even if there’s something better, it can be tough to get them to leave. Facebook knows this better than any platform out there; despite the constant user gripes about its service, it’s numbers only continue to grow and users, the displeased among them, stay – because they’re hooked into the network. Still, the OS limitations of Home are good news for current messaging apps who are able to span all handsets and bring those using them together.

Despite the bullish predictions of these apps, one thing is clear: Facebook came prepared to play with the current market leaders of messaging. 

Francis Bea
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Francis got his first taste of the tech industry in a failed attempt at a startup during his time as a student at the…
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