Facebook expands Messenger to work with other apps like ESPN, Weather Channel

The world's largest social network plans to allow app makers to send photos, music and other stuff through its communication service.

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Facebook's new Messenger Platform will let third-party apps and services integrate with the chat app to send messages and other items directly through Messenger. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- For the past eight years, Facebook has focused its efforts on ways to help developers across the Web interact with its social-networking service. Now, it's coming up with new ways for them to interact with its apps as well.

Facebook is building new functionality into Messenger, its mobile chat program for smartphones like Apple's iPhone and devices powered by Google's Android mobile operating system. Starting Wednesday, Facebook will allow app developers to send items like music, photos and videos by plugging into what it's calling Messenger Platform, opening up the chat app and the more than 600 million people who use it each month to new products and services.

The company said at its F8 developers conference here that it has already worked with app developers like JibJab, a generator of comical videos, and Giphy, for searching and sending animated GIFs. Users who choose to install those apps through Messenger can send items to friends with the tap of a button. ESPN and The Weather Channel are among the more prominent companies partnering with Facebook for the launch of Messenger Platform, which will have more than 40 apps at launch.

It's not just about communicating with each other with funny or compelling images, says Facebook. The company will let businesses integrate with Messenger to share things like shipping and tracking information for a purchase and let users communicate with the company to change an order.

"We're reintroducing personal back to shopping online," said David Marcus, Facebook's vice president of messaging products who left his role as president of payments service PayPal to join the social network last summer.

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ESPN is an early partner of Facebook's Messenger Platform, where users can send sports highlights as animated GIFs to friends directly through the chat app. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

For Facebook, the move has could help elevate Messenger into a social network of its own, instead of being merely way to send missives to friends and family. That's could be a key advantage as competitors such as WeChat and Line expand their efforts to expand past their popular Asian markets and into the US.

In a way, Facebook is defending its status as the world's largest social network. Last year, it laid out more than $19 billion to purchase WhatsApp, a service that became popular as a way to avoid expensive international charges for sending text messages between countries. The company also was reported to have offered $3 billion to buy Snapchat, an ephemeral-communications service that is particularly popular among teens and young adults.

In the meantime, Facebook has been bolstering Messenger's capabilities and importance. Last summer, for instance, it removed the ability to send private messages to friends and family from its primary mobile app, telling users to download Messenger for that functionality instead. Since then, the company has said it believes focusing on a separate app will help users more quickly communicate with one another.

Two years ago, Facebook added stickers, following a popular trend from Asia to express emotion through cartoons. And just last week, the company said people could send cash to one another for free, by means of a payments mechanism it used for games and other apps on the Facebook website.

Further expanding Messenger's skills could help raise Facebook's relevance among smartphone owners who have grown accustomed to downloading apps for all manner of capabilities, from snapping photos to playing games.

That could help Facebook tap into the popular world of apps and, ultimately, increase usage among its users. "If they can connect messenger into a more vibrant marketplace it could be interesting," said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner. "People love apps."

For Zya, a music-sharing service, users who receive pieces of music through Messenger will be directed to download its Ditty app on their phone.

"It's a great way to get involved with a company that knows a lot about social interaction," said Matt Serletic, head of Zya.

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