Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram: will it blend?

Mike Isaac at the New York Times reports that Mark Zuckerberg plans to unite his three biggest services into one core infrastructure. It would mean a message sent from WhatsApp could go into Messenger, or a DM in Instagram… or something along those lines, at least.

It’s a controversial move, not least within Facebook where it is said to have been one of the factors that prompted the founders of both WhatsApp and Instagram to leave the company. The rank-and-file seems upset too:

More recently, dozens of WhatsApp employees clashed with Mr. Zuckerberg over the integration plan on internal message boards and during a contentious staff meeting in December, according to four people who attended or were briefed on the event.

Zuckerberg can also expect heavy external criticism from lawmakers that will see this as definitive evidence that Facebook is an immovable social media monopoly:

The two sides of US politics don’t agree on much. But when it comes to how to handle a problem like Facebook, mumbles over monopoly concerns have lately turned to roars.

Here’s a flashback to Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing last May, as told by Quartz:

A frustrated [Linsday Graham, Republican Senator] cut him off. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product I can go sign up for?” he said. “I’m talking about real competition you face … I’m not talking about categories.”

The Facebook CEO weaved around the question, citing a statistic that “the average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch.” Graham finally stated the question on many people’s minds.

“You don’t think you have a monopoly?” he asked.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg responded, to some laughter in the room.

The simplest way to knock Facebook down a peg or two would be to force the company to break out Instagram and WhatsApp into separate companies, just as they were before. Today, that looks like a clean break.

But if Facebook manages to merge the three services, with a central platform, it can make a stronger argument that spinning out the apps would not be straightforward at all. It isn’t three products, Zuckerberg could argue. It’s just one you can access in a variety of ways.

As we ponder Zuckerberg’s strategy, it’s perhaps telling that his first major change to Facebook post-scandals is arguably not intended not to solve its problems, but to protect its power.