The NYT first broke the story about how Facebook plans to tie messaging ecosystems of its three services together in a move the company says is in response to customer demands for chat that is “fast, simple, reliable, and private”, but which has been more broadly interpreted as being aimed at reducing redundancy and increasing the reach of the Facebook advertising machine.
From a purely IT perspective integration makes a lot of sense. Each service currently has its own team of techs maintaining a separate infrastructure, databases, code, security, support, etcetera. By unifying the underlying chat technology, Facebook will remove a lot of redundant positions and streamline the provision of chat services on their network. Once the project is complete, over 2.6 billion people will be connected on the same chat network, making it easier for Facebook to roll out existing marketing initiatives and maybe even help identify new revenue streams.The elephant in the room however, is how Facebook will implement encryption for messaging. Currently, end-to-end encryption is the default for WhatsApp, available as an option via “Secret Conversations” in FB Messenger, and not available at all on Instagram. So which scheme will Facebook choose? We would all likely prefer they choose default end-to-end, but Lily Hay Newman over at Wired rightly points out that “The company has had a notoriously hard time earning revenue off of WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion users, in part because of end-to-end encryption.”
Just how much that encryption interferes with Facebook collecting useful marketing and advertising info will be key to whether Facebook makes encryption optional or enabled by default. The company is very aware that a major factor driving use of WhatsApp over competing chat services is its secure network, and we mustn’t forget that it was only recently (2016) that Facebook enabled default end-to-end encryption for all WhatsApp users. A move backward to encryption as an option (depending on how its implemented) could cause an exodus of users who are there primarily for the security. In a time when Facebook is facing significant challenges with regards to public perception of its ability to safely handle user data, anything that disturbs the status quo could be detrimental to the app’s long-term prospects.
Facebook will bump up Instagram to allow Secret Conversations and bump WhatsApp down to remove the encryption default, with an option to turn it on for all messages if that’s what the user explicitly requests (similar to the current FB Messenger functionality). I believe the potential revenue is worth losing some fans.