How Tech Giants Lost Control Of Messaging

The WhatsApps, Snapchats, and Kiks of the world have all the power.

Is Kevin Systrom insane?

If you watched this morning's Instagram Direct announcement, you'd be forgiven for thinking so. But it's not totally his fault. The 29-year-old Instagram founder had an impossible task. Let's call it the tech CEO's burden: He, the founder of an established tech company, had to stand up in front of a room of journalists and industry insiders and convince them, with Jobsian confidence, that the product he is holding in his hand is not just transformative, but completely new. Even if that product is a video-app clone or picture messaging.

The announcement seemed calibrated for an audience that had never heard of wildly popular messaging apps like Snapchat or WhatsApp, never sent picture messages on their phones, and, perhaps, never seen a smartphone. It was astonishing and crazy, and in any other context it would have been received as such.

This type of forced delusion is becoming increasingly common in tech. Its underlying cause is also becoming apparent: The Googles, Facebooks, Twitters, and Instagrams of the world are stunned by the staggering rise of outsider messaging apps. They're shaken and disoriented, and they're starting to make strange decisions. For the first time in a handful of years, these companies aren't in control of what comes next.

Messaging, arguably one of the internet's most consistently vital technologies, has nonetheless lived its life as a perpetual afterthought. The sequence is as follows: Build a cool product, attract users, and then give them a way to talk to one another. AIM, Facebook Messenger, MSN, Gchat, and Twitter DMs all rose out of more complex software or services. This is why the enormous and sudden popularity of the Snapchats, WhatsApps, Lines, and Kiks of the world came as such a surprise — they are very purely just apps. Their context isn't a preexisting service, it's your phone's homescreen.

These newer services are, in every way, incredibly efficient "killers," built to do one reasonably simple thing, and to do it well. Every facet of their experiences is carefully tailored for quick, personal communication. They're new and inherit contacts lists either from your phonebook or nowhere, resulting in a fresh graph of people you, ostensibly, want to communicate with. Facebook's social graph, while valuable in many other ways, is not structured around the idea of instant communication, and it shows. It's why receiving an instant message on Facebook feels different than getting a text message, and it's why a lot of people opt to go "invisible" on the service.

Most of these message apps come from reasonably small companies, but they're growing wildly. Line recently touted its 300 million user figure, WeChat claims 600 million, Snapchat hinted yesterday at 30 million users, and today Kik announced it reached 100 million users. These numbers give them power and control. When it comes to actual innovation in the messaging world, they're very much in the driver's seat, forcing the internet giants to play an unfamiliar game of catch-up in a category they have long taken for granted.

Larger companies' messaging strategies have been, for the last few years, strange and unpredictable. But understood as a reaction to insurgent messaging apps, they make a lot more sense. Google recently condensed its array of confusing messaging products into one comprehensive umbrella service called Hangouts, shunting all your communications into a single stream. Twitter joined the messaging wars with an expanded picture direct-messaging product. Mere weeks after Mark Zuckerberg's failed attempt to buy Snapchat, Instagram (a fairly new product, but one that is nonetheless a ward of Facebook) made its move today to install a side-channel direct-messaging product. Facebook has been constantly tweaking its messaging product, and, in one instance, tried its hand at a blatant Snapchat clone, called Poke. The current result, in the form of Facebook's mobile messenger app, is a product that owes as much to WhatApp and WeChat as it does to SMS texting.

For the last two years we've been interpreting the shadows of these decisions; the tech giants' simultaneous interest in messaging has led people to speculate that they're copying one another. There is some truth to this idea, as there was when these same companies reoriented all their products around infinite mobile feeds.

But the truth is simpler and more exciting. These companies aren't copying each other, they just share the same fear: That, in 2014, these companies' icons aren't going to get tapped quite as much, that their feeds aren't going to be refreshed quite as often; that their users will be messaging each other, and doing it somewhere else.

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