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Facebook trolls those users who try to use Messenger on a mobile browser

Historically, Facebook could be accessed on tablets and mobile phones through either a web browser or an app. This is still the case for the bulk of its services, including media albums and the timeline. However, it is no longer possible to use the Messenger without downloading its dedicated app.

Since Facebook has split its mobile-based services into two separate apps, the company has been aggressively encouraging its users to use the Messenger app for chat. At the beginning, a suggestion to download the app was being displayed every time a user would open his or her messages in the browser. Eventually, Facebook stopped displaying messages in browser altogether, redirecting the users to the download page of its Messenger app instead. However, savvy users found a loophole that enabled them to carry on using in-browser messaging as before. This was achieved by setting the browser to desktop mode.

Despite Facebook Messenger app being free to install and despite the fact that only a small proportion of its users knew, yet along, cared about the loophole, Facebook have decided to invest a lot of resources into closing it. Initially, Facebook web page looked identical on mobile devices regardless of whether or not the desktop mode was switched on. The only difference was that the redirection to an app store did not occur when the desktop mode was enabled. However, this did not last long. After Facebook developers were made aware of the loophole, they forced fully sized desktop version of the website to be loaded whenever the desktop mode was requested on a mobile device. This made the website much slower to load, eat much faster into mobile data and much more awkward to navigate on a small screen. This did not, however, fully prevent the most stubborn users from using messaging in a browser. Therefore Facebook went one step further and not only stopped its messaging service from being used on a mobile browser, but started trolling those who still attempted to do so.

You can still navigate to your Facebook messanges in a mobile browser and you still can open them. However, as you try to type anything, the letters start dynamically changing. Therefore, instead of meaningful sentences, you end up with completely undecipherable junk.

The majority of Facebook users will dismiss this development as insignificant, as they have already installed the Messenger app. However, users need to be aware that there must be a good reason why the company has exerted so much effort into preventing its customers from using something that relatively few of them knew about, especially where its usage did not result in any obvious additional costs to the company.

Normally, the advantage of using an app over going to a website directly is related to loading speed and mobile data usage, as the user interface is already stored on the mobile device and doesn't have to be downloaded from the web. The main disadvantage of an app over a website is that an app requires extra storage space, which is, sometimes, quite sizable. In addition to this, an app can request fairly intrusive permissions that would never be available to a web-based service when it is accessed through a browser.

Facebook Messenger app does indeed ask for some intrusive permissions, some of which seem to go well above of what the app would need for its normal functionality, but would enable the app to extract personal details of its users. Such permissions include access to the camera and personal contact list. Whether this is something that the users should be concerned about, is open for a debate and would not be possible to determine unless you have access to the app's source code. However, from the Facebook's perspective, these permissions is the only thing that distinguishes the app from its website. Therefore, these permissions are the reason why Facebook wants its users to use its apps so badly.

Whether Facebook collects anonymised business analytics or extracts users' intimate data without their consent, is not possible to know, unless you are a Facebook insider. However, the mere fact that Facebook is prepared to go to such a great length to enable its users' data to be collected in the way that isn't possible via the browser alone raises the question of whether its Messenger app can be trusted.

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Posted on 3 May 2017

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