On November 10th, Facebook publicly announced that its stand-alone Messenger app has grown to more than 500 million users. Messenger was originally released for iPhone in 2011, but the app’s popularity — or infamy — surged dramatically in July 2014, when messaging functionality was stripped from the Facebook app and users were forced to download the stand-alone Messenger app. Since Facebook began this forced download strategy globally (it was originally rolled out in Europe in April 2014), the Facebook Messenger app has rarely fallen outside of the top 5 of the most downloaded apps on iPhone in the US.
Only Facebook knows how many of those 500MM users installed the app before messaging functionality was pulled out of the main Facebook app, but surely the visibility of Top Downloaded chart prominence has contributed to that number significantly. The success of this strategy for Facebook — that it can fashion a new app out of existing functionality that has its roots in its legacy web product and almost instantaneously propel that app to the height of the Top Downloaded chart — is a massive boon to its (mobile advertising) business and its ability to retain users.
That Facebook is a broad enough business to be able to create individual mobile products out of components of functionality means it can continue to deliver new functionality to users without ever having to dramatically alter an existing product. And Facebook still has a number of functional elements it could potentially spin out of its website into stand-alone apps (Events seems exceptionally ripe for such a maneuver).
Not all companies can achieve was Facebook did with Messenger. Foursquare’s foray into unbundling with Swarm seems to have created usage silos rather than a self-reinforcing feedback loop between the two apps, which hasn’t tempered Foursquare’s decline on the Top Downloaded chart (iPhone / US):
Swarm’s Top Downloaded chart prominence, meanwhile, was short-lived:
Facebook’s ability to do what Foursquare couldn’t is a massive competitive advantage. Not only did Facebook manage to expand its portfolio of apps and potentially stem user base loss (which seemed to be a genuine concern for the company at one point, as teens migrated to — presumably given Facebook’s overtures — simple messaging apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp), but it propelled a new app to the height of the Top Downloaded chart without spending anything on marketing. As of this writing, Facebook owns 4 of the top 20 apps on the Top Free Downloaded chart: Facebook Messenger (#2), Facebook (#3), Instagram (#5), and WhatsApp (#18). In other words, 20% of the surface area of one of the most effective and competitive billboards in the world belongs to Facebook.
Ownership of that surface area has created a virtuous cycle for Facebook: the more users that discover its diverse range of apps from the Top Downloaded chart, the more people it can funnel into new ones as it releases them.