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Anything and everything that this giant networking site does makes news!

And why not- when each of its changes, policies and announcements affects 1.35 billion people or almost a fifth of the world’s population, it is bound to hit headlines for whatever it does. Yes, I am talking about Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB).

It is the Facebook messenger app which has been among the headlines since yesterday after the Google Play Store showed 500 million downloads on Android for it within a short span of three months.

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“This is an exciting milestone but with a half billion people relying on Messenger to communicate and connect, it is also a reminder that there is so much left for us to do,” Peter Martinazzi, Director of Product Management at Facebook, wrote in a blog post.

That means a little less than half of Facebook users have adopted the app in spite of their initial reluctance to do so. And though that is a staggeringly huge number, David Marcus, Head of Facebook Messenger, says that his team is “going for a billion” users. As of July 2014, no app has been downloaded a billion times over the Android Play Store.

When Facebook had announced its decision to split its messaging service in April, the users were dismayed and outraged. The download became mandatory for users in Europe in the month of April and for everyone else across the globe by the month of August. The networking giant began forcing their users to download the messenger app to be able to chat, share videos and make free calls with their Facebook friends using the network.

As the users tried sending personal messages to contacts on their lists using the messenger app, they were told that the messages have been migrated to the Messenger app which they would be required to download to chat to friends over their phones.

The app came under flak from users and critics alike over both- the forced download and the privacy concerns. While some stopped using Facebook chat over their handheld devices altogether, others reluctantly complied in spite of the concerns. Interestingly, in a recent Q&A session Mark Zuckerberg explained why Facebook forced users to download a separate messaging app.

The huge whiplash it got from its wide user base was understandable- users usually complain when big changes are made to a popular platform. But in this case the site owners were forced to offer an explanation for its move.

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Analyst Brian Blau, research director of Consumer Technology and Markets at Gartner had said: “As with most changes that Facebook makes, users are typically not happy in the beginning and they don’t understand the motivations as to why the changes are being made. And, as with most changes we see from Facebook users will accept the change and just move on. This issue probably won’t impact Facebook over the long term.”

The long list of permissions it asks for included but are not limited to:

  • Find accounts on the device.
  • Read your own contact card.
  • Read your contacts.
  • Your approximate and precise location.
  • Edit, receive and read your text messages.
  • Directly call phone numbers.
  • Read call log.
  • Test access to protected storage.
  • Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage.
  • Take pictures and videos.
  • Record audio.
  • View Wi-Fi connections.
  • Read phone status and identity.
  • Receive data from internet.
  • Download files without notification.
  • Run at startup.
  • Prevent device from sleeping.
  • View network connections.
  • Install shortcuts.
  • Change your audio settings.
  • Read Google service configuration.
  • Draw over other apps.
  • Full network access.
  • Read sync settings.
  • Control vibration.

Some who had installed the app went on to say that the app uses your camera to take pictures or record phone conversations of users. Facebook had to clarify that the app does not turn on the camera of microphone when the user is not using the app actively, to put malicious rumours about it to rest.

There were also rumours about the app reading users’ call log and sharing this data. The paranoid ones went on to say that the app might send out SMS messages without confirmation incurring unexpected charges.

Almost all apps need certain permissions to run on Android, and we use these permissions to run features in the app. Keep in mind that Android controls the way the permissions are named, and the way they’re named doesn’t necessarily reflect the way the Messenger app and other apps use them,” the site had said.

Though those clarifications did not help alleviate safety concerns, users continued to download the app. Some went ahead because they did not quite understand what granting all those permissions meant. The others who did know the possible ramifications of such a broad range of permissions bit the bullet because they simply could not stay off the messenger app on their phones.

The fact that the app got only a one star rating on iOS for some time came as no surprise. Though it went on to become the most popular free app on the iOS within a short span of time, its popularity did not stop the detractors from posting negative reviews even after hitting the top spot. Android users aren’t too happy either- the app has only 3.9 stars on the Play Store after 500 million downloads.

“In order to best serve people, you need to build multiple standalone different apps. So we’re seeing that with Facebook and Messenger and the work that we did to kind of split out Messenger from the Facebook app to give a dedicated experience or an app that we think is a better experience,” said Zuckerberg recently in an interview.

He went on to add that though asking existing users to download a separate messaging app was, “a short-term, painful thing,” the site owners are continuously working to make messaging more fun and useful for users so as “ to hook the majority of people using SMS.”

The news that it has been downloaded by 500 million times by Android users alone over the last three months means that Zuckerberg owned network now has four social products with more than a million users: Facebook (1.35 billion users), WhatsApp (600 million users), Facebook Messenger (500 million users) and Instagram (200 million users). However, it would be interesting to figure out how many unique users are actually under Mark Zuckerberg’s radar.

With 10 billion messages being exchanged over various apps every day, it is obvious that someone who owns four HUGE platforms like the ones mentioned above will decide how people interact with each other on social platforms.

Facebook had already started working on its standalone messenger app way back in 2011, realizing that it could be the key to the company’s fortunes in the future. Not the one to rest on its laurels or to go complacent, the site owners update the app every two weeks- introducing new stickers to make messaging more fun for users and to improve the speed and reliability of the site. That goes to prove how much importance the site attaches to its messaging app and how vital they know it is for them to maintain their supremacy on this front to stay ahead of rivals in the social sphere.

The news of getting 500 million downloads over the Play Store has undoubtedly placed the app under spotlight once again, barely three months after it was almost written off. The move to hire David Marcus, an experienced strategist from PayPal, to take charge of the messaging app has not gone unnoticed by experts either. With Marcus at the helm of affairs, we will not be surprised if the networking site goes on to allow users to perform financial transactions as well.

Zuckerberg obviously has huge expectations from his messenger app in the future and while we might not be aware of it, the mastermind has probably chalked out a plan to milk its four best cash cows by shaping the future of messaging and dominating the scene.

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