Facebook and Uber Follow Asian Rivals in Plan to Enhance Messenger App

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook Messenger gets 3D Touch, requests and snowflakes.

Facebook Inc. on Wednesday will begin letting users hail Uber cars straight from its Messenger app, part of the social network’s push to open the messaging service to more forms of commerce. SAN FRANCISCO – The growing army of Facebook Messenger users can now order up an Uber ride without leaving the social media giant’s communications app.

Instead of the relatively simple programs that Americans use to send messages and photos to friends, popular Asian services like WeChat have become digital Swiss Army knives: People can use them to hail a car, shop for games, buy virtual stickers to send to friends and even shop for physical goods. The new feature, announced by both companies Wednesday, allows Facebook to keep its captive audience – Facebook Messenger now has 700 million monthly active users – while giving Uber exposure to a potential pool of new customers. But recently, Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has begun to emulate its Asian rivals, making its Messenger service — with 700 million users — more of an all-purpose platform. Facebook’s twist is that ordering a car via Messenger alerts those in your chat thread that you have indeed grabbed a ride…instead of you lying that you have whilst still in your pajamas. And all those conversations are happening in Messenger,” said Rahul Bijor, Uber’s head of API and strategic partnerships, at a demonstration at its headquarters.

The pairing will give ride-hailing competitors such as Lyft pause, considering the two companies are among the most powerful tech startups ever, with Facebook currently valued at nearly $300 billion and privately held Uber at around $70 billion. On Wednesday, Facebook announced a partnership with Uber, the ride-hailing service, that will for the first time allow users in the United States to summon a vehicle from within the Messenger smartphone app. The new location-based Uber-for-Messenger feature will be rolled out to all U.S. cities by the end of the week, with plans for an international expansion in the new year. Most people are already using Facebook Messenger to organise a happy hour or go out to the movies, but once the plans are set, the experience within Messenger stops. “Making that plan is really just the first step, and we want to help people actually follow through with that plan and meet up with their friends in real life,” Rosenberg said. Re/code first reported the two sides were in talks in the summer of 2014, and a more recent update to the app expanding on location sharing and searching essentially set the stage for an Uber-like integration.

In a recent demonstration of the service held at Uber’s headquarters, Facebook product manager Seth Rosenberg showed how a group conversation within Messenger about a meet-up at a restaurant could yield a ride reservation in just a few screen taps, either by tapping on an address listed in the chat or a small icon of a car. “We’re trying to bring expressive content into communications,” says Rosenberg, as he tapped on a message that listed a restaurant’s address. While Facebook users can choose from a range of GIFs or sticker packs to use in their messages, the messaging experience isn’t very useful beyond that. Alternatively, users can click on a “transportation” button from inside a conversation with their friend, which will also take them to the Uber screen. Adds Rosenberg with a laugh: “This is also the only honest way to tell friends that you’re actually on your way,” a reference to the fact that once you’ve order a ride, that information appeared in greyed-out text within your Messenger conversation.

It’s actually bringing a lot of utility to the platform.” In March, it began allowing developers to write small apps that could be included in Messenger, although most of them are variations on emojis and selfies. The new Uber on Messenger feature can be found by clicking on the car icon or finding “Transportation” in the three-dot “more” below where you write your message.

If an Uber rider wanted to share their ETA with friends, it would be sent via text from the Uber app and not put in the group chat to let friends know you’re on your way. Uber and Facebook have been working on the feature for the past few months. “The stars aligned and we realized this fit with both our strategies,” says Bijor.

It’s rare for Uber to hand out these kinds of free credits to people who are already users, but somehow Facebook convinced it to create a big incentive to use Messenger Transportation. Support for 3D Touch makes messaging easier and sending a message request to someone who isn’t already a friend is also convenient. is designed for iPhone and iPad with Apple Watch support. Since then, other businesses have started testing Messenger as a customer service channel, including Hyatt Hotels Group and Seattle-based local services startup Pro.com. Rosenberg rattled off a bunch of use cases like booking flights or nabbing tickets in the app eventually. “We’re just getting people used to the idea that you can message more than just people on Messenger,” he said. Uber launched its developer platform earlier this year with an rev share offering of $5 per new user to entice businesses to embed the ‘Uber Ride Request Button’ within their apps.

Lyft allows for a similar integration within Slack, but Uber is the first transportation partner to launch with the Messenger app, according to Rosenberg. And for now, Uber is testing leaving that chat communication as an open window for support, so you can chat with Uber if you left something in the car, for example.

Line, which is popular in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, also makes money through in-app purchases and by selling packs of online stickers for about $1.99 apiece. Marcus said. “The way we look at whether an experience makes sense inside of Messenger is if it makes sense within the confines of a conversation.” WeChat, the dominant Chinese chat app, is more like a collection of apps.

Uber tells us that since the Messenger Transportation feature is built through a private integration, that anti-competitive policy doesn’t apply and Messenger can include other services like Lyft. Made by Tencent, a Chinese gaming and e-commerce conglomerate, WeChat bundles many services, including games and shopping, and new ones are being added every day.

Both Facebook and Uber sidestepped questions directly about a Lyft integration, but a source close to the matter tells TechCrunch that Lyft will offer rides through Facebook Messenger starting in January. Uber has accused Tencent of deleting Uber’s accounts in WeChat, effectively giving Didi an advantage in reaching hundreds of millions of consumers in China. Group messages are a main attraction, as are recorded voice messages that can be sent like texts, and many companies use the service for business discussions. As for UberKittens, its famous promotion that brings kittens to your door, that’s not ruled out as working within the app one day, but for this release, Uber’s marketing stunts will be left out. Instead, their strategy has been to make the number of people who use the app as large as possible and make money on extra services, like games or stickers.

There are 700 million people on Messenger, according to Facebook and the ability to order an Uber through the app rolls out to a chunk of them in several U.S. cities today. Rosenberg said Facebook wanted to keep it only to that one line of text to protect people’s privacy — you might not want to let your work colleagues know where your ride originated if you were working from home.

Messenger and Facebook’s other chat app, WhatsApp, could collectively chip in between $9 billion and $10 billion in added revenue by 2020, Deutsche Bank analysts said in a note in June. More than 650 million people regularly use WeChat every month, and the service averages $7 in revenue per user on its network, according to estimates from the research firm Nomura. While it’s a first-of-its-kind partnership for Uber, building the transportation framework within Messenger sets up Facebook to make more of these partnerships. Scott Nelson, head of North America for Viber, a popular chat service owned by the Japanese retail giant Rakuten, said every messaging service was trying to find its own formula. More from WSJ.D: And make sure to visit WSJ.D for all of our news, personal tech coverage, analysis and more, and add our XML feed to your favorite reader.

Nelson said messaging apps must find the right balance between simplicity and providing the features that users want — something that may vary by country. “You’ve got to be light and nimble,” he said. “That being said, there is a place for a few things here and there that make the end user’s life easier.” Mr. Blau said it remained to be seen what extra services users really wanted to see from Messenger. “They can add taxis, they can add banks,” he said.

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