Which is your favourite way to message family and friends? Are you a WhatsApper, a Facebook Messenger fan, or are you big on Instagram DMs? Maybe you’re none of the above and favour a good old fashioned text message, or iMessage if you’re an iPhone user. Whichever camp you fall into, your messaging habits might start to look a little different come 2020, which is when Facebook intends to have enabled cross-platform messaging between its family of apps.
Facebook purchased Instagram and WhatsApp in 2012 and 2014 respectively as independent companies, with Facebook as the parent company. However things seem to have moved a lot closer together in recent years, and enabling cross-platform messaging between the apps would merge their underlying infrastructure. This recent development could have some interesting practical implications for both users and businesses alike.
What are the benefits of cross-messaging and what will it look like?
At present it’s unclear exactly what will change about the messaging experience for users once the three platforms enable cross-platform messaging. But what we know so far is that developers are already at work, in the early stages of re-configuring the underlying infrastructure of these messaging platforms into a more unified eco-system. They may start to feel more alike to users.
The word from Facebook is that they want to build “the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private”. Advertising has been a part of users’ experience of Instagram and Facebook Messenger for quite some time, whilst the company makes significantly less revenue from WhatsApp. It follows that the benefits of cross-messaging will not only be experienced by users themselves. But it’s worth considering how their experience might be improved.
In a world of cross-messaging between the Facebook family, users may be less likely to have to swap between apps to send a message to other users, making their experience of any of them more seamless. This might mean having an option to send a singular new message to a user on a different app. And it also might mean that group chats hosted on each of the platforms might be open to users of any. Concerns have been raised about the likelihood of users having to create a unified identity across the apps where at present WhatsApp only requires a phone number to set up an account.
Will it affect the way businesses communicate with their customers?
Cross-platform messaging will also signal a shift in the way that businesses interact with customers, as a proportion of customer service is already taking place via Facebook Messenger and Instagram direct messages. Engadget reported that Facebook is already working on bringing Instagram direct messages into the Facebook Pages Manager system. This app currently allows companies to manage conversations with customers that come via Messenger. And as an increasing number of brands and organisations are receiving queries via their DMs on Instagram, it makes sense that this would be brought under the Pages Manager umbrella. This indicates that Messenger and Instagram direct messages are already moving closer together and brought under the same management systems for businesses. It also makes advertising via Instagram direct messages seem a likely outcome of this integration process.
The integration of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp’s messaging services does raise the question of how chatbots will form part of their newly unified infrastructure. As well as allowing Facebook access to data which helps hone advertising, unencrypted chats allow for the introduction of customer service bots. Brands will be looking to create a more seamless customer service experience across platforms, so the question is, will chatbots be integrated into all three apps?
What will it mean for competition like iMessage?
The continuing success of WhatsApp is for a multitude of reasons, not least because it offers fully encrypted messaging, and is available across a variety of devices. iMessages between Apple users are completely encrypted, even to Apple themselves. Unfortunately as soon as an iMessage is sent to a user who doesn’t have an Apple device, it becomes an SMS and loses the encryption it would otherwise have had, an obvious drawback.
Facebook’s attempts to create a more homogenised messaging ecosystem of a combined more than 2.6 billion users may well be imbued with a desire to keep users within the Facebook apps for much more time. Unifying their apps may reassert Facebook’s dominance over competing messaging services which will not offer the advantages of cross-platform messaging.
What about privacy and data security implications?
In recent years trust in Facebook has fallen due to security breaches and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, so they’re going to have to get security right here. Currently, WhatsApp is the only one of the three messaging services in which messages are end-to-end encrypted by default. This means that the messages are only visible and accessible to the users at either end of the conversation. Facebook Messenger has introduced end-to-end encryption as an option that users can opt into by selecting “secret conversations”. Instagram however, currently doesn’t feature end-to-end encryption.
For end-to-end encryption to work, both recipients must have this feature enabled, which on WhatsApp they do by default. As Lily Hay Newman writes in Wired: “In practice, it can be difficult to use the protection effectively if it's enabled for some chats and not for others and can turn on and off within a chat at different times”. WhatsApp’s security feature is one of several reasons for the app’s popularity with users and so will be of obvious concern as the messaging services are more merged.
This issue of encryption is key for making cross-platform messaging between these apps a success. Security issues will have to be painstakingly ironed out as this no doubt long process comes together for Facebook.