Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB ) decision to force Messenger on its mobile users has sparked a great deal of backlash. Earlier this week, the social network went so far as to publish a blog post explaining the shift and debunking some of the unfortunate myths that had crept up around the change.
From a PR standpoint, the unbundling of Facebook Messenger appears to be an outright failure. Yet the move highlights the power Facebook has on mobile, and should ultimately benefit the company.
Messenger dominates the app store
Currently, Facebook Messenger sits atop the free app charts on both the iTunes and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) Play app stores. Their rise to the top coincided with Facebook's decision to force its users to install Messenger -- previously, it had a been feature within the larger Facebook mobile app.
Users are evidently not happy with the change. The current version of Facebook Messenger has a one-star rating on iTunes: "they forced me to download [this app]... it's completely ridiculous!" is how one reviewer put it, and a good summary of the general sentiment surrounding the app.
Facebook Messenger appears to be more favorably received on Google Play, but only because of the unique system Google uses to weigh ratings. The current four star (out of five) rating combines older reviews (people who downloaded the app prior to the mandatory revision) with newer ones. Looking at individual reviews, recent adopters appear just as negative as their iTunes counterparts.
Why Facebook wants a seperate app
Was breaking out Messenger a mistake for Facebook? No -- when the backlash blows over, Facebook will have established a useful asset.
In its blog post, Facebook notes that users of Messenger tend to respond to messages 20% faster than users of the general Facebook app (when it had messaging features built in). This makes sense, as the Messenger app is a bit faster and more conducive to alerting users that they have new messages.
The version of Messenger for Google's Android, for example, can even handle SMS conversations, replacing Google's own Hangouts or the various OEM-made Android text messaging apps. It also brings systemwide Chat Heads (pop-up bubble alerts), which allows users to make calls over Wi-Fi, and send stickers to other Facebook users.
Virtual stickers have become a business for rival messaging apps -- LINE, a service popular in Japan, generated nearly $70 million in revenue last year from the sale of stickers. Compared to Facebook's quarterly revenue (around $3 billion), that's hardly significant, but the messaging space remains in its infancy. Breaking out Facebook Messenger now, and letting it grow as a platform over time, could allow it to generate significant revenue in the future.
Facebook's control over mobile
Facebook's desire to take over the mobile web has been evident for some time. Facebook Home was its first attempt at hijacking a user's mobile experience, but the bloated app that took over nearly every aspect of a handset powered by Google's Android was an abject failure.
Breaking out Messenger is, in some sense, Facebook going in the complete opposite direction -- rather than bundle, Facebook is unbundling, allowing its users to choose which features they wish to experience.
In this case, it seems that many of them are choosing to keep Facebook's Messenger -- worse than negative reviews would've been no reviews at all. Evidently, sending messages through Facebook is important enough that users were willing to do endure the inconvenience of downloading the app: According to Google's Play Store, more than 500,000 Android users have downloaded Facebook Messenger to date.
In total, Facebook has just over 1 billion monthly active mobile users, suggesting that a significant percentage of them have embraced Facebook's new app. By just about any definition, breaking out Facebook Messenger appears to have been a success.
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