Facebook plans to integrate its messaging platforms, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger, according to a report from the New York Times.
The three services would remain separate apps, but their infrastructure behind the scenes would be the same.
Even with minimal changes on the surface, the move could have an impact on the billions of people who use the tools. For example, it could allow the company to build a single user profile from its different apps to better target ads.
The apps could also get end-to-end encryption, which shields messages from being read by people outside of the conversation, according to Facebook.
"We're working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work."
Facebook estimates 2.6 billion people total now use Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or Messenger each month, according to its most recent earnings report. In addition, more than 2 billion people use at least one of these Facebook-owned apps each day on average.
Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst at research firm eMarketer, said data would likely be shared between the apps as a result of the move. That could make it easier for Facebook to track users' activities across its family of apps and target ads more effectively.
For users, increased data sharing could also mean that information about their activities on WhatsApp will be associated with what they do on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger, she added.
"If users didn't think Facebook and its messaging apps were all the same company, they will have to confront that reality now," Williamson said. "Knitting the messaging apps together shows that Facebook wants to exert more control over them, and that may lead to more internal executive conflict."
After being acquired by Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram remained relatively independent entities. However, both platforms have become increasingly important to the company as Facebook has struggled with fake news, foreign election meddling and privacy scandals.
WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014, and its CEO and co-founder Jan Koum left the company in May 2018. Koum reportedly decided to resign after disagreeing with Facebook over its approach to personal data and encryption.
In October, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left Facebook after reportedly clashing with CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the direction of the photo sharing app. Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012.
Jessica Liu, senior analyst at research firm Forrester, believes the user experience would only change slightly.
"I'm sure most users won't notice and won't think twice about it," she said. "As it is, you're already getting Facebook friend suggestions in Instagram and you're already getting kicked from Facebook to the Messenger app if you want to talk 'privately' to another Facebook user."
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