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As Facebook Messenger tops 800 million users, Google eyes messaging app

Facebook Messenger is the fastest growing app of 2015, research firm Nielsen says. But its nearest rival, WhatsApp, lacks some features but remains more popular, while Google is rumored to be developing a messaging service that includes artificial intelligence features.

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As Facebook’s Messenger app surpasses 800 million users, making it the fastest growing app of 2015, according to research firm Nielsen, it is facing an unusual competition.

Its chief rival, WhatsApp – which has 900 million users – is also owned by the social media giant.

Google is also rumored to be developing its own messaging app that would include some artificial intelligence features to compete with the Facebook products and services like Snapchat and Viber.

But while WhatsApp, one of the first services to allow users to send and receive text messages without paying data charges, lacks some features that Facebook Messenger offers, such as the ability to make video calls, it has proved increasingly popular around the world.

Last month, a Brazilian judge blocked WhatsApp after saying the site had failed to comply with a criminal investigation, causing widespread outrage across the country as millions of users lost access to the service, which they said had become a key means of connecting with friends and family.

A second judge revoked the ban, saying the site could be fined instead the next day. But the response – from angry lawmakers in Brazil’s Congress arguing the ban was unconstitutional and from telecom companies – which did little to stop the ban – points to a larger amount of influence than that enjoyed by Facebook Messenger.

“One of the things we have to work on this year is this perception or mindset that Messenger is only to speak with your Facebook friends,” Messenger head David Marcus told Reuters in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Facebook appears to be working to change that, by introducing the video calling feature, allowing users to sign up without an account, make mobile payments, and talk directly with businesses.

The site is also exploring the option to monetize Facebook Messenger by introducing ads; Facebook makes money on its website by selling ads that appear on users’ timelines, but it hasn’t yet set a timeline for doing for Messenger. WhatsApp, by contrast, is available to download in some countries for $1, or free in others for the first year and then $1 for each subsequent year.

But for the various services, it appears that artificial intelligence features could be the next battleground. Google’s rumored service would allow users to text friends or a chatbot, which could scour the web for an answer to a question and then remember the users’ responses.

One app, Luka.ai, already does this, for example, by remembering that a user said they were a vegetarian and not recommending meat restaurants the next time they ask for recommendations, The Wall Street Journal reports.

With its M personal assistant, which can make restaurant reservations and book plane tickets through Messenger, Facebook appears to be exploring similar territory. It's currently available to 10,000 users in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Mr. Marcus told Reuters the company hopes to make it more widely available later this year.

So far, Google may face some challenges, such as attracting users to the service, a dilemma that has plagued other Google offerings such as Hangout and Messenger, the Journal reports.

While the company occupies an unusual niche in that it could use the chatbot service to draw more users to its ubiquitous search features, it also lacks a large scale social network of users like Facebook to draw on.

The market for messaging apps also appears to be somewhat fickle – during Brazil’s brief ban on WhatsApp – the rival secure messaging service Telegram said it had signed up an additional million users.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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