Risky Business of Building on Platforms

The fears surrounding Facebook’s recently announced changes to its news feed highlights the risks publishers embrace when relying on a distribution platform over which they have no control. Facebook – like other large platforms – has its own priorities, plans and goals, so the statement that they view their “work as only 1 percent finished” suggests that any business built on its platform will face shifting sands for the foreseeable future.

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Alongside its aim to continually improve feeds for the user, a core Facebook strategy appears to be to become the most popular messaging app in the world. The purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion was not a whim, despite the involvement of a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Even before the WhatsApp acquisition, Facebook Messenger had already become the top messaging app in the US and UK.

Chat Wars Past and Present

Messaging has already been recognized as an important conflict on mobile, with both Apple and Google still very much in the fight. Asia is in the throes of its own chat war, between WeChat, LINE and KakaoTalk. And there are countless other chat applications spawning across the globe.
Users caught in the middle of the messaging war have for some time suffered from being overloaded with different ways to communicate with their friends, colleagues and stalkers. But this is not a new problem and neither is the war over the channels we use for chat. At the turn of the century, old-school tech giants were squaring off in increasingly acrimonious and sneaky skirmishes that show how far dominant players will go to preserve their hold.
In a nutshell, Internet users in the 1990s could chat using Microsoft’s MSN Messenger Service, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo, and ICQ. With apparently no real initial desire to profit, curious Microsoft engineers made it possible for MSN users to also chat over AIM. Predictably, as AIM provided a source of advertising revenue, AOL was not impressed and there followed a hidden arms race between coders over access to AIM.
David Auerbach has written a fascinating view from the trenches of those early chat wars:

AOL was putting out absurd propaganda about how Microsoft was behaving like an evil hacker by asking for your AOL password. This wasn’t true, but we weren’t allowed to respond except through our PR department. My team was completely sealed off from the outside world—except for our code, of course.

While MSN may have lost that particular skirmish, other applications, such as Trillian and Pidgin, still survive today, having cleaned up the IM experience for chat users in the early 2000s and beyond.

Chat Overload

So users are again faced with too many chat applications on their devices.

There are 24 different ways for me to message someone from my phone right now. All for no additional charge beyond my existing cellphone bill.
I can pick from iMessages, Snapchat, Instagram Direct, Twitter direct messages, WhatsApp, Telegram, Confide, AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook Messenger, Wut, GroupMe, Line, Viber, MessageMe, Kik Messenger, Popcorn, Glide, Tango, ooVoo, Shots, Skype, Whisper, TigerText and even my email account.
It’s slightly overwhelming just thinking about which one to use. I can use Facebook to set up a group chat, or Confide to write a secret message, or Twitter because it’s easy, or Line if I want to include some stickers … I’m sorry, my head is already spinning, I have to sit down.
Nick Bilton, The New York Times

While it sounds like a nice idea to consolidate and pick a universal messaging app, this may never happen, because there are good reasons for the diversity:

The biggest roadblock to total messaging domination by any one provider isn’t just that the market is incredibly fragmented, it’s the reason why that fragmentation exists: namely, that different networks serve different purposes or solve different problems.
Mathew Ingram, Gigaom

But that isn’t stopping some apps from making inroads into consolidation and improvement. The Facebook mobile app is notoriously resource-hungry and buggy, but it can be replaced with Friendly, a lightweight alternative that also gives access to messaging on Instagram.

Risky Business

However, Friendly is also available in a paid version that blocks ads. This is the kind of risky move that can get a developer cut off from the source. While Facebook is apparently lying dormant at the moment and seems unconcerned about these kinds of threats to its revenue (possibly focusing on expansion and the monetization of more arcane user transactions), it could decide to act without warning and wipe out any services that depend on its platform, especially if it grows to dominate the messaging sphere. This is what AOL did in 1999.
A powerful platform like Facebook can support a diverse mini ecosystem wherein other companies feed off its data and reach. But these symbiotic players have to be wary or they could find themselves unceremoniously shrugged off.
Updated: 11 July.


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