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Here's Facebook Inc.'s Next Major App

By Sam Mattera - May 3, 2016 at 9:10PM

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Moments remains in its infancy, but could emerge alongside Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram as a core mobile app for the social network.

Source: Facebook.

Facebook's (META -0.76%) mobile app is one of the most popular in the world. More than 1 billion people use Facebook on their mobile devices each and every day. But there's more to Facebook than its core social network.

The company has an increasingly impressive array of other apps, each boasting hundreds of millions of additional users in their own right. Collectively, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram reach 2.3 billion people each month, mostly through mobile devices. WhatsApp and Messenger lead the way with 1 billion and 900 million monthly actives, respectively; Instagram adds 400 million. The company has tried many times to add a fifth to that lineup, but most of its initiatives have been outright failures. Last year, Facebook discontinued Slingshot, Riff, and Rooms after they failed to gain sufficient traction.

But Facebook has one up-and-coming app that may hold considerably more promise: Moments, a photo-centric app Facebook launched last year, has remained one of the more popular apps in the app store since its debut.

Making it easier to share photos
Moments is fundamentally a photo-sharing app, but not in a social networking sort of way. Moments is instead designed to make it easier to send private photos to friends.

Say you and a friend both attend a party, during which you each take more than a dozen photos. The photos you took are on your phone, while the photos they took are on theirs. There are several ways you two could exchange them, including email, text message, or, if you both use iPhones, AirDrop. But these methods can be cumbersome, and perhaps too complicated for some users. Enter Moments: With Facebook's app, you can send entire catalogues of photos to your friends with a just a few taps.

It took Moments a few months to catch on, but by last fall it had emerged as one of more popular free apps in the app store, and has held relatively steady ever since. It's currently the 55th-most popular free app on the iTunes App Store, just behind familiar staples Chrome, Lyft, and Skype.

Its popularity has been increasing in recent months. In February, Facebook announced that Moments users had shared more than 400 million photos since last June, with 100 million of those shared in February (via TechCrunch). Facebook has added additional features to Moments to make it more attractive, including the ability to share videos, and has also punished users unwilling to download it. In January, it removed support for automatic photo syncing on its core Facebook app, sticking it in the Moments app instead. Those that still want to use the feature must rely on Moments.

As it currently stands, Moments doesn't have any true direct competitors, but in time, it could become the go-to solution for photo management, at least among Facebook users. That could put it in direct competition with other photo apps, most notably Alphabet's (GOOG -0.27%) (GOOGL -0.21%) Google Photos. Like Moments, Google Photos allows users to sort and share their photos, but also doubles as a free cloud-backup solution. Moments doesn't offer much in the way of cloud storage, but with its Facebook integration, it excels in terms of sharing.

Another avenue for advertisements
Moments and Google Photos also share a reliance on artificial intelligence. Each service includes a heavy machine learning component, through which they automatically scan, sort, and categorize images. Google Photos users can search for concepts such as "cat", "screenshot", or "Florida" and see relevant images from the photos they've taken. Moments lacks the complex search of Google Photos, but automatically categorizes photos based on the faces of the people in them. And if you're friends with them on Facebook, you'll automatically be prompted to share.

During Facebook's most recent earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked about the company's efforts in artificial intelligence, and cited Moments as a notable example.

"Artificial intelligence is a long-term effort for us, but we're already using it in lots of ways. Right now our Moments app is using face recognition to help you share pictures with your friends."

Later, Zuckerberg added additional color.

"...we are building this Moments app. So that way you can take photos on your phone and if use this app, our face recognition can look at the photos that you take and suggest that you might want to share photos that you took with a friend in them, with that person."

As it stands, Moments remains in its infancy, and is far removed from adding to Facebook's top or bottom lines. But if it remains popular, Facebook could eventually monetize it -- like its other apps -- through advertising. As Facebook's artificial intelligence technology becomes more capable, the company could deliver targeted ads based on the images users share with Moments.

With Facebook's core advertising business already firing on all cylinders, it doesn't need Moments to be a hit. But it could provide a source of growth in the years ahead.

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