Facebook is taking the first major step in a plan to merge its systems and let users exchange messages among all its different mobile apps—and is chipping away at the independence of Instagram’s direct-messaging product in the process.
Engineers are working to rebuild Instagram’s chat feature using Facebook Messenger’s technology, according to people familiar with the matter. That will make it possible for Instagram users to communicate with those using Messenger, something they can’t do now. To make that technically easier, Instagram’s direct-messaging staff now reports to the Facebook Messenger team, said the people. The look of the photo-sharing app’s messaging product, called Instagram Direct, won’t change much, but the underlying technology powering the service will, the people said.
Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg decided last year to make it possible for users of Facebook’s properties—Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger—to chat with one another no matter which service they’re using. The move toward “interoperability,” as he calls it, has been described as a massive technical undertaking. It’s also caused tension within the company, as critics argue the separate products thrive in part because they’re not directly associated with Facebook. The world’s largest social network has faced sharp criticism over its privacy and data-sharing practices.
A spokeswoman for Instagram, and another for Messenger, declined to comment.
Zuckerberg has made the case internally that Instagram and WhatsApp, acquired in 2012 and 2014 respectively, have used Facebook’s resources to grow their independent brands—so now it’s time for them to give back to the parent company, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing internal matters. Zuckerberg has asserted more control over Instagram and WhatsApp in recent years, reining in their autonomy in an effort to keep all the services working more closely. The leaders of Facebook’s four main apps—Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp—all report directly to Zuckerberg as of this March.
Facebook recently said it was going to change the external branding of Instagram and WhatsApp to “Instagram from Facebook” and “WhatsApp from Facebook.” Employees of the divisions will also change to Facebook email addresses, instead of being reachable @instagram.com or @whatsapp.com, people familiar with the company said. That move was reported earlier by Business Insider. The Instagram Direct team’s new reporting structure was described last week by The Information.
That plan hasn’t gone over well with some key employees of Instagram and WhatsApp. Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company last fall amid frustrations over Zuckerberg’s control. WhatsApp’s founders also exited after clashing with the CEO over plans to put advertising inside WhatsApp, something the founders vehemently opposed.
The departures were dramatic, but haven’t changed Facebook’s plan to bring all of its standalone services closer together. The decision to combine messaging services comes at a time when Facebook is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for potential antitrust violations. Some critics, including Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, have said the integration plan will have the effect of making the company harder to break up from a technical standpoint.
Zuckerberg argued in March that the move was more about privacy and convenience. The social network also intends to encrypt all of its chat services, meaning messages will remain private and won’t be stored on Facebook’s servers. Right now, only WhatsApp is fully encrypted in this way, but Zuckerberg’s plan is to encrypt Instagram and Messenger messages as well.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—What you need to know about 8chan, the controversial site tied to the El Paso shooting
—Verizon’s unlimited plans are getting cheaper. Here’s what you should know
—What CEOs, bankers, and tech execs think about a coming recession
—How an alleged Amazon theft ring got the goods
—Boeing adds a second flight control computer to the 737 Max
Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune's daily digest on the business of tech.