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Facebook is removing the Chat function. What the deuce?!

Posted by Alex Perryman on 16th April 2014

Commenting on changes to Facebook is sometimes a fools errand: For a week the internet overflows with frothy-mouthed complaints. Within another week it’s all forgotten.

It pays to be open-minded about any changes that Facebook implements, as it’ll probably all come right in the end.

That said, Facebook’s removal of its chat function from the website into a discrete app is fairly annoying, and hasn’t gone down well at all.

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Why the change?

Facebook has rightly removed many features that didn’t work. However, Chat didn’t fall into this camp. Chat has always been a useful feature, and has evolved to become more useful.

Facebook’s recent ‘chat heads’ feature, for example, (where chat bubbles would appear unobtrusively at the side of the screen, and could be expanded, moved or dismissed with a single swipe), was the picture of ‘user first’ convenience.

But now Facebook wants us to install yet another app, (on top of the main app and pages app), and swap back-and-forth to message? Hardly convenient.

If Facebook isn’t de-integrating Chat in order to improve the immediate user experience, what gives?

A smoother experience?

Facebook claims to have de-integrated Chat for performance gains. Apparently the discrete app offers a ‘smoother’ experience. Messages are also, (apparently), delivered 20% faster. Personally, I can’t claim to have met anyone who complained about Facebook messages being delivered too slowly via the integrated chat feature.

Mindofthegeek has stuck up for the removal of Chat, saying that Facebook’s dedicated IM app offers a better experience, but I suspect Facebook could have sorted out performance issues in the main app if it suited it.

Perhaps, as Facebook adds features, the mobile app is becoming too bloated? Maybe. Then again, memory is becoming less and less of an issue, and rumours abound in comments-sections that the battery issue may have been traced to development errors.

Integration with WhatsApp?

Others have speculated that de-integration of chat has something to do with Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp.

On the face of it, this would seem like an obvious answer: Many people coming from WhatsApp are used to a standalone app, and don’t see the need to be ‘smooshed’ together with Facebook’s wider services. Or perhaps Facebook intends, later on, to combine the users of its WhatsApp service with its Facebook chat service?

Fine, except that for every person who preferred the standalone app, there is at least one person who preferred chat as an integrated service.

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Also, users currently require a Facebook login for Chat. It’s therefore hard to see how the Facebook and WhatsApp user bases could be brought together without running two parallel tiers of chat, (Pidgin, anyone?)

Improvement of services?

Perhaps Facebook is aiming to ‘up its game’ in chat? We already know that Facebook’s Chat ‘vision’ incorporates voice and SMS, (and I suspect they’ll add video later on).

But who would maintain that Facebook couldn’t deliver these services via a mobile app or browser window? [Alright, perhaps they couldn’t currently deliver this service via a mobile browser window, but how much of an issue is this, really, given that the vast majority of mobile interaction takes place via one of the Facebook apps rather than a browser?]

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Splitting the risk / abandoning the ‘platform’ strategy?

Perhaps it’s all of these factors, or none.

Wired‘s interpretation seems pretty plausible. It implies that Facebook is splitting its core functionality across bitesize apps in order to split the risk over the failure of any one component element of the business.

More specifically, it suggests, it is the newsfeed function that may be on a downward trajectory. Why wrap the platform, the thinking goes, around a function that, if it fails, could take down the entire company? Why not diversify? The kids love messaging, right?

The problem with this approach is that, again, the reverse is also true: Many people have stuck with Facebook precisely because it has come to offer a more diverse range of functions over time, which have individually increased my buy in.

But you know what I would abandon quite quickly? A messenger app, or a standalone newsfeed or photo-sharing app.

And on to the next change…. 

Hopefully, these days, no-one still subscribes to the idea that we shouldn’t complain about ‘freemium’ services like Facebook. If ‘we are the product’, then, in return for ‘paying’ Facebook with sellable user information, we have every right to complain about features being changed.

For the moment, I like my Facebook integrated. Though it’s a matter of personal preference, I suspect most other people do too. But who knows? Maybe, once again, I’ll change my tune over time.

Alex Perryman

Alex joined Wildfire in 2007. He is renowned for his ability to pick up complex technologies and new industries extremely quickly.