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As messaging apps proliferate, one service aims to power them all

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Layer launches to the public and releases an open source design library, Atlas

We live in a world where messaging apps command $20 billion valuations, but amidst that embarrassment of riches is a major pain for users: each massively successful new service is another siloed channel you need to manage. You like WhatsApp, but your best friend prefers Facebook Messenger; your little brother is on Snapchat, and your mom sticks to iMessage. A simple conversation can get tangled up in a slew of different apps.

Trying to craft a common standard

A year and a half ago, a new startup called Layer launched with the goal of creating a common standard: a new messaging protocol that would let any app to communicate with another. It was a continuation of a dream they had pushed during the instant messaging era with the creation of XMPP, better known as Jabber. In mobile messaging, that unified world is still largely a fantasy, but Layer has signed up 1,500 customers during its private beta, with a waiting list of 8,500 more. Today it’s launching to the public and debuting Atlas, an open source design library to help integrate its messaging capabilities into company’s mobile offerings.

The sales pitch for Layer was that any app could add messaging with just 10 lines of code. For startups who haven’t launched, Layer is free. But Layer charges its larger clients — leading apps in the dating, games, and sports categories who clock in at more than a million monthly users. "We make it easy for the smaller teams to get started using Layer, allowing them to focus on creating a great experience for their users, and hopefully to become a massive success down the road," says Ron Palmeri, the company’s founder and CEO.

Helping small startups in the hopes they will become big customers

The offering has won big praise for accelerating the time to get from idea to app. "The craziest thing about that experience was how fast it went," says Ryan Freitas, a designer who used Layer while working on mobile products for About.me. "We went from loose mockups to a fully functional product in less than two weeks. Given that we don’t have anyone here who is a messaging expert, that normally would have taken us five to six months."

The biggest complaint from companies trying to use Layer, on the other hand, was that they didn’t know how to create the design or interaction around the messages. It was great to add messaging to an app, but it was hell when that functionality introduced bugs or errors. Atlas is an attempt to solve that. "It gives you a toolkit to easily craft a great messaging interface," says Palmeri. "And importantly, to make sure that what you have looks distinct from other folks who are using us."

Connecting constellations of apps with a single owner

Layer is hoping that it can become a lynchpin of the booming app ecosystem. "Like Stripe or Mapbox, we want to be the back end that delivers a core function of mobile software," says Palmeri. They haven’t yet created a federated universe of apps from different companies that talk with one another, but Layer says it is seeing crosstalk between disparate apps with a single owner.

As tech investor Fred Wilson wrote last year, titans like Google, Yahoo, and most recently Microsoft are acquiring top mobile services at a rapid pace, leading to interesting constellations of apps. These clusters create an opportunity for Layer, which can open up channels of communication. "We have lots of requests from companies that want to make this network of apps capable of talking to one another, and to enable a single sign-on, so you can sync or share contacts and messaging history," says Palmeri. "It’s a little bit of our vision starting to unfold."