In a landmark blog post last month, Mark Zuckerberg outlined a new, “privacy-focused” vision for Facebook. The announcement signaled a fundamental shift in strategy for the embattled company in the midst of growing public mistrust and plummeting usage of its core social network.
It was also a shot across the bow of Facebook’s Big Tech rivals in the ongoing battle over the future of business messaging.
Welcome to the living room
Zuckerberg rightly observes in his post that while social media channels like Facebook offer users a digital “town square,” the rise of messaging signals that people increasingly prefer to “connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”
Lucky for Zucky, Facebook owns the two most popular messaging apps in the world — WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — which, along with Instagram — collectively boast more than 2.6 billion users.
As the New York Times notes, Zuckerberg seems to be drawing inspiration from the world’s third most popular chat app. That would be WeChat, the Tencent-owned platform that dominates the digital landscape in China thanks to a built-in payment system that allows users to pay bills, play games, order food and do pretty much anything else without leaving the app.
Instead of selling ads — a business model that inevitably depends on collecting user data — WeChat makes most of its money by taking a cut of these transactions (not that its track record on data privacy is anything to look up to).
If Facebook’s plan is to transition from an ad-based business to one built on conversational commerce, it has a long road ahead of it — though reports that the company is developing its owncryptocurrency suggest it may be on its way.
But the short term strategy here may be a lot simpler.
All in the family
Facebook’s announcement comes on the heels of widespread reports that the company is working to merge the back-ends of WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram. This will allow users to message each other across the three apps and presumably make life easier for businesses once WhatsApp’s Business API becomes generally available and Instagram introduces its own enterprise solution.
In his post, Zuckerberg confirms the merger plans and lists “interoperability” as one of its new governing principles: “People should be able to use any of our apps to reach their friends, and they should be able to communicate across networks easily and securely.”
Of course, Facebook’s version of interoperability doesn’t extend too far beyond its own walled garden. Android users can currently send and receive old fashioned text messages via Facebook Messenger. But this doesn’t work on iOs devices where iMessage is king and Apple is making its own business messaging play with Business Chat.
Most importantly, the SMS protocol is not encrypted, as Zuckerberg acknowledges in his post. Neither is RCS — the new telecom standard backed by Google, which aims to update and replace SMS with a more modern messaging experience.
Tales from the encrypt
Zuckerberg has emphasised that Facebook’s new messaging-first strategy will be based on the way they’ve developed WhatsApp, with end-to-end encryption at its core.
While critics have pointed out that encryption and privacy are not the same thing, WhatsApp is currently the most secure messaging channel on the planet as far as businesses are concerned.
When the WhatsApp Business API became available to select brands last year, one of the caveats was that businesses had to store customer conversations on their own servers so that not even Facebook could access the data.
This was a significant technical hurdle that underscored a) how badly brands wanted to engage customers on this channel and b) that Facebook was serious about bringing end-to-end encryption to business messaging.
The question is whether Facebook’s mega-messaging ecosystem can really be private, secure and interoperable, and whether brands and users will demand anything less.