Facebook is good at putting on a conference. Attendees at this year’s F8 were greeted with a splashy tent-filled venue full of colorful lights, sounds of a carefully curated playlist, and piles of food around every corner.
If that wasn’t enough, day one’s announcements and technical sessions were topped off with custom Patagonia vests and a Deadmau5 concert as a parting gift to the developers who paid nearly $500 to attend.
But swag, snacks and a free concert aside, for many developers the biggest news of the conference was Messenger Platform: Facebook’s ambitious plan to turn Messenger into a massive hub of content along the lines of the chat apps that dominate in Asian markets.
But missing in all of Facebook’s messaging-related announcements was one update many developers have had their eye on for years: a WhatsApp API.
While there was never any indication Facebook had plans to introduce one, many developers at Wednesday’s closing keynote were clearly disappointed when WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton effectively shut down any hopes developers may have still had on the subject.
The reason, Acton insisted, is the need to keep the WhatsApp user experience pure. WhatsApp has been so successful because the company put speed, reliability and performance above just about everything else. If you let in third parties who might, “inundate users with messages they don’t want,” it would come at the cost of that user experience, he reasoned.
But despite his logic — and reassurances he was “empathetic” to their concerns — the disappointment in the room was immediately palpable.
The call for a WhatsApp API is nothing new — as evidenced by this Quora thread on the subject from 2012. But if Messenger, which has about 100 million more users than WhatsApp, is now open to anyone, why do developers still care so much about WhatsApp? For that seamless messaging experience Acton described as “most sacred.”
“Implementing chat features is hard, especially when it comes down to sharing pictures, sounds etc.,” London-based iOS engineer Kevin Mindeguia explained. “It’s actually one of those features you try to avoid as a developer, because of its complexity. Having a ready-to-use API and an SDK would save us great time and money.”
In short: WhatsApp features could enable the kinds of experiences developers can’t yet achieve with Messenger.Messenger may be great for rich media — GIFs, photos and emoji — but WhatsApp still rules in the minds of many developers.
Greg Spiridellis, CEO of JibJab, one of the companies that partnered with Facebook on its Messenger Platform, has a slightly different take. Though he admits he would love to be on WhatsApp, he says he understands why the two are separate.
“Over time some of the things they’re so focused on will enable richer experiences,” Spiridellis predicts. “Connectivity and hardware, those are the two things that are making sure whatever device you’re on, whatever kind of network connectivity you have, you’re going to have that great core experience.”
Both of these will get better and better — albeit slowly — over time and maybe then WhatsApp will become a little more open, he said.
Until that happens though, developers better not hold their breath. If Facebook made one thing clear this week it’s that it sees Messenger as a platform for experimentation, not WhatsApp.
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