In a panel discussion at this week’s Facebook F8 developer event, the head honchos behind Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram sat down to explain why the social network owns and operates three apps that compete with its own core business.
“There’s a theory that in five years, all your products will morph into one. Maybe it will be called WhatsInstaMessage,” said panel moderator Mary Meeker.
The key, it turns out, is simplicity: Facebook and Facebook Messenger are only getting bigger and more complicated. Apps that do one thing, and do it really well, are the social network’s hedge against bloat and user burnout.
Anybody who can’t handle Facebook Messenger will probably find something to like about the simplicity of Instagram and WhatsApp. And that goes double in the developing world, where the cutting edge devices and fast Internet connections required for Facebook’s full service aren’t going to penetrate for some time.
Learning simple the hard way
But both WhatsApp and Instagram had to learn to keep things simple the hard way. As independent startups, both originally tried to do too much.
WhatsApp was originally supposed to be a more direct Facebook competitor, letting users post statuses. When that fell flat, WhatsApp pivoted to be a super-simple messenger that did one thing well, and thrived.
“Simple, simple, simple has always been our mantra,” said WhatsApp founder Brian Acton.
Instagram has a similar story, trying something complicated before stepping back to do something really simple “that solves a real problem” in a cool way, Krieger says.
“If I had a tattoo, it would say ‘do the simple thing first,'” quipped Krieger.
Meeker cut to the burning question, asking how the companies that all do similar things work with each other.
“How do you take the best of each other without stepping on each other’s toes?” Meeker asked.
WhatsApp: Simple messaging. Acton said WhatsApp just keeps its head down and focuses on providing a super simple messaging product. He’s not worried about the Facebook platform, but any resources are there if he needs it, and he’s a resource for anybody there.
For WhatsApp, that future is in voice. Voice chat just came out for the Android app for WhatsApp, and is coming in the next few weeks for Apple iOS devices. But maybe more importantly than that is keeping the service reliable.
“We spend a lot of time on just making it work,” Acton.
Meeker also called out WhatsApp’s international growth, which Acton attributed to the company’s focus on fixing problems as customers discover them, making sure the app works on the tremendous variety of networks and carriers across the globe.
This focus on simplicity comes with a downside, however. Two separate developers asked the panel for a WhatsApp API so they can build apps on top of that platform, too — only to be denied.
“The user experience is what we must hold sacred,” Acton said.
Instagram: Great things with photos, and better discovery. Instagram just doubles down on providing an awesome photo experience, Krieger says, where people (and celebrities) can use the core app, the new Layouts app, and Hyperlapse to do things with their images and share them in a way you can’t do with any of the other apps.
The future, for Instagram, is in discovery — finding a single user among the 300 million using Instagram is a challenge, Krieger acknowledged. It turns out people like Instagram’s Discover functionality, where it recommends photos.