Facebook Messenger is now open for business

The company will let third-party developers build on the app, making it a platform

Facebook is throwing open its Messenger app to third-party developers, letting them add new functions that will make it much more than a tool for communicating with friends.

At Facebook's F8 conference on Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg described two ways that Facebook is opening up Messenger, but many more will follow.

To start, it will allow businesses to use Messenger as a way to connect with customers, so after you buy something on a website, for instance, you'll be able to contact the business via Messenger to tell them you ordered the wrong item, or to track delivery of your package.

It's a better way to do it than having to pick up the phone, according to Zuckerberg. "I don't know anyone who likes calling businesses; it's not fast and it doesn't feel like the future," he said.

Facebook will also allow third-party apps to integrate with Messenger, so people can send more feature-rich messages. He gave the example of JibJab, an app that lets you create animated messages, but the list includes Bitmoji, Legend and many more.

Those are just a few ways Facebook is opening Messenger, and there will be more.

"We want to start small and focused," Zuckerberg said.

Facebook started requiring people to use Messenger last year, when it removed the messaging functionality in its main mobile app. A lot of people were unhappy about that, but it means Messenger now has 600 million users.

The news had leaked ahead of time that the company was expected to turn Messenger into a "platform" open to third parties.

By adding the new capabilities, Facebook can ensure people spend more time in its app. It has the potential to become "a really important communications tool for the world," Zuckerberg said.

It's also a threat to rivals like Yelp, which provides ways for people to contact businesses directly through its app.

Also at F8, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will allow people to post 360-degree videos in their News Feeds. It's a type of video akin to virtual reality that's filmed on devices that have multiple cameras, like Samsung's Project Beyond.

While video is the big growth area on Facebook today, tomorrow it will be augmented reality and virtual reality, Zuckerberg said.

F8 runs Wednesday and Thursday at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The keynotes and some of the sessions are being live streamed here.

Facebook says there are nearly 3,000 developers at the event, up from 750 when it held the first F8 in 2007. Back then, developers had built around 100 apps for the Facebook website; today, millions of websites and apps use services like Facebook login.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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