Mar 24, 2015 · 4 minutes

Facebook is about to announce a raft of changes to its Messenger service with the hope of turning it into the most important app on its 1-billion-plus users' smartphones. The company's plan: to invite developers to build their own miniature apps for the service. Facebook has tried and failed to replace its users' home screens in the past, making this familiar, yet difficult, territory.

The company is expected to reveal specifics about this program – such as how it will work, with whom it will debut, and what it might eventually look like – during the semi-annual F8 developer conference in San Francisco tomorrow.

A source familiar with Facebook's plans tells Pando that the company tasked 30 launch partners, many of which are focused on GIFs, emoji, and multi-media creation, with developing apps for this new Messenger platform at the beginning of this year. Those apps must be written specifically for Messenger; supporting it isn't much different from supporting iOS, Android, or Windows.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Facebook asked its launch partners to sign non-disclosure agreements, says these partners will have exclusive access to Messenger's platform until six months after its debut. Then, assuming the platform takes off, it will be opened to other developers.

Exclusive access to the Messenger platform at launch isn't the only perk being offered to these launch partners. We're told Facebook has also made it so these partners will have their apps pre-installed when Messenger is updated. Developers who release apps when the app platform is opened to the public will likely have to convince people to manually install those apps, like they do from other app stores.

Among the companies thought to be partnering on tomorrow’s launch are Giphy, Kaomoji, JibJab, and possibly Meerkat – the hit video live-streaming that took over SXSW. Giphy, Kaomoji, Meerkat, and Facebook didn't respond to requests for comment. JibJab declined to comment, though a spokesperson did say that co-founder and chief executive Gregg Spiridellis will be "on the ground" at F8 tomorrow and offered to set up a meeting with him at the event.

[Update 3/25 05:00am PT: After this post was published, Meerkat co-founder and chief executive Ben Rubin provided the following statement: "We have no role there. How ever , we are very intrigued and excited about the opportunities FB is going to enable and we believe that there's a huge overlapping space to explore there with live video."]

Facebook isn't the only company that has thought to bring applications into a messaging service. Such arrangements are popular in Eastern markets where Line, WeChat, and KakaoTalk offer access to various apps in their chat universes. And Kik brought something similar into its messaging service back in April 2013.

But Facebook must be careful with the transition of Messenger into a platform. Facebook's last attempt to turn its service into a place where anyone could build software capable of reaching its many users, Facebook Platform, ended up being a giant missed opportunity. This new messaging strategy must avoid Platform's prior mistakes -- namely the inability to strike a balance between frustrating users with too many messages and limiting an app's ability to go viral -- to stand a chance of reviving Facebook's ambitions.

Moreover, Facebook is poised to make major changes to the Messenger experience, less than a year after it stoked major controversy by forcing mobile users to download and use a standalone messaging app, rather than chat from within the main Facebook app. Many users still hold a grudge over the change; any upsetting of the apple cart could come with increased risk.

This might explain why Facebook is choosing to restrict the platform at launch to 30 presumably carefully-selected partners. Now, more than ever, the company needs to control any new experience it introduces to users and make sure the public and its developer partners alike believe that Messenger will be different from the earlier Platform debacle.

When you're serving more than 1 billion people, it's nearly impossible to please everyone. But Facebook’s core priority at all times is to drive "time spent on platform." The more time its users spend in the Facebook universe – meaning Facebook Web and mobile, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slingshot, and Paper – the more communication and content they create and share, and the better they map out their social graph. The result being that Facebook can better target and market to them.

With the introduction of Messenger as a platform, Facebook gets to appropriate some of the time consumers would otherwise spend in competing chat apps like Giphy, Kaomoji, JibJab, et al. Facebook may piss off a few million people around the world with the reinvention of Messenger, but if the net result is more engagement – something that seems to be the case with the launch of the standalone Messenger app, protests notwithstanding – then the company will happily make that trade.

The related question, however, is, does this make sense for developers and end-users? Third party developers benefit from integrating into Messenger by getting access to a dramatically larger audience. But this comes at the expense of control over relationships with these users. A quick look at the fate of Zynga, which early on based its business almost entirely on the Facebook platform, reveals the risks of such a strategy. For consumers, the upside of a richer Messenger experience brings with it increasing reliance on a single company that has proved time and again its willingness to prioritize its own financial interests (and thus those of advertisers) ahead of its users'.

There are still more questions than answers about the forthcoming platform. We’ll get a much fuller picture of the scope and positioning of the changes during Facebook’s F8 keynote tomorrow. Until then, know that with Messenger is about to get a major overhaul and, as always, Facebook's partners and users will be the ones asked to compromise.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]