Messenger’s head David Marcus tells Madhumita Murgia why conversations could replace apps, and be the future of Facebook’s business
Amid the chaos of Europe’s largest technology conference, the Dublin Web Summit, David Marcus looks perfectly unruffled.
In an immaculate white shirt and blazer, and coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, the soft-spoken French-born head of Facebook Messenger has the air of a man in control. And so he should: since the former president of PayPal joined Facebook in 2014, the app has more than doubled its number of users from 300m to 700m monthly active users. It is now the second most-used messaging app in the world, trailing only its sister-app, Whatsapp, which had 900m users at last count.
Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg has publicly acknowledged the importance of Messenger to the future of Facebook. “One of the fastest-growing and most important members of our family is Messenger. We think this service has the potential to…connect hundreds of millions of new people, and to become a really important communication tool for the world,” he told the audience at the company’s F8 conference in March.
David Marcus’ job is to turn Messenger into a gateway to the mobile web. His plan: to replace apps with chats.
“The only thing people do more than social networking is messaging,” Marcus told me, as we chatted in a Facebook-branded booth, eating from chef-prepared lunch boxes with dozens of Facebook, Instagram and Oculus Rift employees milling around us. “I always like to rewind to what people did before technology. Before the web era, we just had conversations.”
There’s little doubt about it: messengers are some of the most successful apps today. Together, the five biggest ones – Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, WeChat and Line – account for more than 3 billion accounts.
The start of the messaging wars has been openly declared: upstarts who are vying for our thumbs globally range from the South Korean KakaoTalk to Japan’s Line and Canadian Kik.
Mobile phone messaging apps will be used by more than 1.4 billion consumers in 2015, up nearly 32pc on the previous year, according to eMarketer’s first ever worldwide forecast for these services.
That’s roughly 75pc of all smartphone users in the world. By 2018, that number will reach 2 billion and represent 80pc of smartphone users. Within five years, it could reach total saturation.
In order to grow its user base at an exponential rate, Messenger has expanded its reach beyond that of the 1.5bn-strong Facebook network. “We’ve enabled people who don’t have a Facebook account to get Messenger, using their phone number,” Marcus says, echoing the strategy that Facebook-owned Whatsapp uses.
But Facebook isn’t just trying to expand your friends-and-family network. Next, Marcus wants you to conduct all your business transactions – with retail assistants, airline ticketing agents, telecoms call centres, robotic PAs – using Messenger.
“On Facebook, we already have 45m active businesses on Pages, and 700m active people on Messenger so the two sides of the network already existed, but there was no bridge between those two worlds to communicate,” he explains.
In August last year, around the time that Mr Marcus joined the company, Facebook spun out Messenger into a standalone app that could be your portal of communication with everyone. As part of this strategy, it announced an entirely new layer called ‘Businesses on Messenger’, which allows users to communicate with businesses and brands within the app.
If you use Marcus’ trick of recalling a pre-digital era, that would be like going over to your local seamstress and chatting with her about buying another dress like the one you bought last week.
If the idea seems far-fetched in our web-first world, there are eerily-similar precedents to look to. In 2011, Chinese tech giant Tencent launched a simple messaging app called Weixin. Now rebranded as WeChat for an international audience, it boasts 600m monthly active users who use the app as a filter for the mobile web: you can hail taxis, book doctor’s appointments, do your grocery shopping or pay your utility bill, all through WeChat.
WeChat allows any developer to build third-party apps into the chat ecosystem, leading to the growth of entirely new companies that exist solely inside WeChat. In September, a WeChat-based butler app called Laiye raised $4m in seed funding just two months after launch; similarly food delivery app Call a Chicken has raised $1.6m.
Neither company has its own app.
But Marcus says Asian app models won’t necessarily work for Messenger, which has a mostly Western market.
North America and Europe already have successful services for apps that exist within WeChat. “When it launched in China, you didn’t have a way to hail a cab other than the integration inside WeChat. Here we have Hailo and Uber and all kinds of apps,” Marcus explained.
Messenger’s proposition is that you won’t have to build or use new apps within their app – you can get rid of apps completely.
Instead, you can talk to businesses via a chat thread, so it feels more like a conversation than a transaction. “A thread of conversation is a much better form of app,” Marcus says. A Messenger chat retains your identity, the context of your previous conversations and always follows on logically from your last message.
Trying to kill apps is a bold ambition, at a time when the mobile app economy is ostensibly booming. With 2.6 million apps available on iOS and Google Play, and 140 billion app downloads in 2014, predictions for the size of the mobile app marketplace by 2017 range from $77bn to $150bn.
But in March this year, technology research firm Gartner published a report saying that app usage is going to plateau, as many smartphone users said they were fatigued – they don’t want to increase their current app usage levels.
“After eight years of searching for, downloading, and using smartphone apps, users are maturing in their usage behaviours,” said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner.“It’s not that smartphone users have lost interest in apps. However, users need to be convinced about the value of the app.”
This is exactly Marcus’ point: apps work great if you are a frequent user, but why would you clutter up your phone with the app of a business you buy from once or twice a year at most? Instead, you can just talk to them via Messenger.
Messenger has already trialled its chat service with six US retailers like online clothing company, Everlane. The plan now is to roll out this out to a range of retailers and airlines, with a Q1 2016 launch date for UK businesses.
“If I had previously bought a t-shirt, I can just say ‘can I have another one in black?’ I don’t even have to say t-shirt,” Marcus says. “The person on the other side knows what I mean, where to ship it, and what my size is.”
They are also testing the system with Dutch carrier KLM. Once you have booked your flight, your confirmation details will be sent to you in a conversation bubble on Messenger. You can just text back to change or cancel and get live notifications when you need to check in, or board your flight. “You can do things in a tenth of the time that you can over email or other platforms,” Marcus says.
Built into Messenger like a friend, it can help you out with administrative tasks like speaking to Amazon customer service or making a restaurant reservation. “Unlike other digital assistants on the market, it enables you to complete tasks versus just giving you information,” Marcus says.
Using a combination of human helpers and machine learning, it is constantly improving its responses. “We have a lot of data sources on Facebook pages, so we could leverage what your friends recommend or like to automate M over time.”
So will the artificially-intelligent Messenger of the future still be text-based, or will it evolve into a world of virtual reality avatars, powered by Facebook-owned headset Oculus Rift?
“When you look at the evolution of Facebook, the new generation of business is definitely messaging, followed by virtual reality, so it will be interesting to see how messaging in the world of VR plays out,” Marcus smiles.
“The beauty of VR is that you can share experiences. If we can get people to connect better in the virtual world, then why not? That’s our mission.”