Mobile Messaging Platforms As Internet Gatekeepers

By now, we all recognize that the dominant and growing mobile messaging clients are more than just chat apps — they instead have transformed into a mobile browser of sorts, the gateway that helps billions now access the Internet. Whether with FB Messenger or iMessage or basic SMS here in the west, or juggernauts like WeChat, Whatsapp (FB) or Line in Asia, these apps provide the sandbox where billions of people communicate with others all day long. They’re so big now, they’re platforms, and because mobile app distribution is such a bitch, they are also gatekeepers of the Internet.

A generation ago, lawsuits were filed against web browsers about fair practices — but in a mobile world, where messaging apps are now the dominant mobile platforms, there are no boundaries. These apps can do whatever they want. They can experiment with new services (like Facebook launching “M,” its AI assistant), or they can block access to another service (like in the case of WeChat blocking Uber in China). With mobile being the largest technology market the world has ever seen (and growing), how do entrepreneurs leverage the ecosystem dynamics to piggyback on the distribution potential of these platforms?

Unfortunately, I am not sure there is a good answer. Wit.ai was purchased by Facebook, and was only seed funded. One could argue all the messaging platforms will build their own full mobile app stores (beyond what FB did), as others have begun to. The apps could start using deep linking to push people to apps and charge for the toll, but then they’d be pushing people outside their apps — this is another reason people are trying to build AI bots to pick up on natural conversations and keep things going inside their apps.

Ultimately, I wonder if the messaging platforms have too much control and no incentive to open up or threat of legislation, as mobile – like Batman – has no jurisdiction. While it may be convenient to think of messaging apps as the core command line interface for search and services on a mobile device, I believe that argument holds up better for work-collaboration apps like Slack, where people are also on laptops working and trying to get tasks done quickly. We spent the last few years marveling at iOS but also learning (the hard way) how tight a closed system can be for software distribution. Now, we will really see how a closed system at scale will hammerlock use of other apps and services.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus