When David Marcus took over his new role as head of Facebook’s messaging products one year ago, the timing couldn’t have been better — or worse, depending on whom you ask.
The bad news: Users of Marcus’s new baby, Facebook Messenger, were up in arms. The company had just split Messenger out of the main Facebook app, forcing users to download a second app in order to send messages on mobile. Users, to put it bluntly, were pissed. “It was a great ‘welcome’ moment,” joked Marcus during an interview with Re/code last week.
The good news: The decision meant that Messenger was now free from Facebook; it was its own standalone product. The idea was that Messenger could launch features quickly without having to worry about building (and burying) those features within the core Facebook product. “The use case of messaging is really a primary use case,” said Marcus, echoing closely what CEO Mark Zuckerberg told users last November. “It’s really hard, if you truly want to become the primary messaging platform of choice, for everyone to be buried inside of a really big app that does many other things.”
Marcus and his team have taken advantage of the freedom.
In the past year, Messenger has launched product updates with regularity. It added video calls, peer-to-peer payments and location sharing. Most important was the announcement at F8, the company’s developer conference, in which Marcus pulled back the curtain on Messenger’s new developer platform. The platform means people outside of Facebook can build features for the app. In short, the move paved the way for things like games, texting with businesses and, ultimately, shopping.
It was a busy year for Messenger, even by Facebook’s standards, and the app added nearly 500 million new users. Yes, strong-arming people into downloading your app does wonders for user numbers, but Messenger’s 700 million active users makes it the second-most popular messaging product in the world behind WhatsApp (which Facebook also owns).
Marcus’s list of challenges now extends well beyond a group of unhappy Facebook users. For starters, Messenger’s user base is massive, but it’s also just half of Facebook’s 1.5 billion total users, meaning there are lots of people left to be convinced that two apps are better than one.
One way Facebook is trying to goose user numbers is by letting people sign up for Messenger without a Facebook account. It’s probably the simplest way to get people on the service, but also a reflection of Facebook’s commitment to making Messenger a standalone product. Retaining those who give it a try will also be a challenge. Marcus says the plan is to build unique features into Messenger that users can’t get anywhere else. His goal is to make “the messaging client that’s pre-installed on your phone or that you’re already using feel old fashioned,” he said.
A big part of that will depend on Messenger’s platform, which should help the app offer much more than simple back-and-forth conversations. Right now, the platform is underwhelming. It’s primarily offering a bunch of GIF and sticker apps. But eventually, Messenger is likely to build features tied to commerce: Things like ride-sharing, shopping and paying your bills. In other words, things that cost money and will eventually make money for Messenger.
This, after all, is the underlying reason Messenger was separated in the first place: To become a business. Marcus said this needs to happen, and the platform aspect should provide Facebook with revenue options down the road. It’s a strategy already in place at WeChat, and one that many other messaging apps are starting to adopt.
For now, Facebook is focused on the first step in that process — letting people message back and forth with businesses. It launched this capability back in March with just two companies, but Marcus said more are on the way, including a few already on the platform that Facebook won’t talk about publicly.
“You don’t want to call your airline or your bank. You don’t want to call anyone for business purposes, actually. It’s not that fun,” Marcus said. “[We want to] change that interaction model to make it look and feel more like it used to in the good old days, when you walked into stores and had great interactions with the businesses you care about.”
Any other changes users should brace for? A lot, apparently.
“In the next 12 months,” said Marcus, “[Messenger] is going to look radically different than it did 12 months ago.”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.