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Facebook Messenger pushes leaner app and privacy features

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

Facebook Messenger on Tuesday announced several new features amid the social network’s big push towards privacy.

At Facebook’s (FB) annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California on Tuesday, Messenger teased a leaner, faster version of the app, committed to eventually making all Messenger messages encrypted by default, and previewed new features for small groups and businesses. The updates and improvements announced arrive roughly two months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published his vision for “privacy-focused” messaging and social networking in a blog post, emphasizing that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups were “by far the fastest growing areas of online communication.”

Here are the new Messenger features in the works:

  • A new lighter, faster Messenger called “LightSpeed”

  • Encrypted messaging for all messages

  • An area that displays content from close friends and family

  • The ability to watch Facebook videos simultaneously with other users

  • Business solutions such as appointment booking

Facebook Messenger announced a faster, leaner version of the app called "LightSpeed" is on the way. Source: Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

Messaging at ‘LightSpeed’

The largest Messenger announcement to emerge from Tuesday was another major app update called “LightSpeed:” a faster version due out sometime later this year. The team claims this version of LightSpeed will live up to its name, launching in well under two seconds on most devices while occupying under 30 MB of space — 70 MB lighter than the current version of Messenger. The Messenger team on Tuesday teased that some features will make the jump to LightSpeed while others won’t without specifying which — all in its aggressive effort to make Messenger leaner.

Messenger’s “LightSpeed” announcement is the latest in a larger push by the Facebook-owned group to keep its 1.3 billion monthly users satisfied while moving in the new direction charted by Zuckerberg. And whether the Messenger team wants to acknowledge it or not these days, “LightSpeed” appears like another direct response to some past complaints that Messenger had become too “cluttered” — a word former Messenger chief David Marcus used to describe back in January 2018.

Following 2014, when Facebook spun out Messenger as a separate, standalone app — a move that initially frustrated some users — the Messenger group appeared to be on a mission to bulk up Messenger with more and more features to make the app a compelling experience so users would download and keep using it. But now the Messenger team is veering in the opposite direction by making its app simpler. Last October, for instance, Messenger launched a long-awaited streamlined Messenger update that pared down the number of tabs on the main screen, an update that was teased as far back as last year’s F8.

Privacy, small groups and video

In addition to making the app faster and lighter, Messenger announced on Tuesday it’s committed to making all messages encrypted by default, although the Messenger group did not specify when users could expect that changeover to happen. Messenger already offers users the option to send encrypted messages through a feature called “Secret Conversation,” but messages in the app aren’t currently encrypted from the get-go.

Messenger also introduced new features that double down on messaging and displaying different types of content in small groups, particularly video. That’s in part because 410 million monthly active users connect via video chat, according to Messenger, with the amount of time users spend in video chat on Messenger growing 40% year-over-year. Meanwhile, another popular format, Facebook/Messenger Stories, will also play more prominently. That’s not a surprise given Facebook announced during its first-quarter 2019 earnings report last week that over 500 million interact with Stories every day — up from 300 million daily active users in September 2018.

One new upcoming Messenger feature will let users simultaneously watch videos shared around Facebook in a new section of the app. Source: Messenger

One feature, rolling out later this year, will let groups of users discover, share and simultaneously watch videos shared around Facebook in a new section of the app — a feature the Messenger group think contends could become a popular feature among close friends and family. Another feature, still in the early stages of development, will serve up a dedicated section inside the Messenger app where users that show content from users you message the most, including Stories, photos and videos.

These new features seem to emphasize communications among close friends and family — a theme the group emphasized time and again in its F8 announcement. In light of a series of back-to-back data privacy scandals that plagued Facebook over the last year or so, starting with Cambridge Analytica in March 2018, the social network — or at least Messenger — has retrenched from being a platform where everyone can and should connect to one that emphasizes communications with people you already know well.

What about businesses?

Appointment booking is one new feature coming to Messenger. Source: Messenger

Messenger also announced a number of new business solutions at F8 on Tuesday for those 40 million businesses on the platform: an appointment booking feature and ways to more easily attract customers on the platform, including automated questions and auto-reply buttons in message threads.

One of the larger challenges Messenger will have to face head-on after this Tuesday, however, is how to reconcile Zuckerberg’s call for private messaging against the 40 million messages exchanging 20 billion messages a month with shoppers on Messenger. How do profit-minded, data-hungry business jibe with a more private, encrypted, closed-off platform, which Messenger wants to become? Should businesses be on Messenger at all?

Those are questions Messenger must tackle in the months and years to come if it wants to fully realize Zuckerberg’s vision.

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