Facebook looks set to launch mobile payments

Facebook is set to launch a payments feature in its Messenger app which will allow friends to send money to each other, according to a software hack carried out by a Stanford University student.

Using a tool called Cycript, computer science major Andrew Aude was able to take a look at unpublished code being worked on by the Facebook team, which would allow users to send money to each other as easily as they would a photo.

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It follows hints from the social media giant that it is looking to push into the mobile payment space. On its second-quarter earnings call CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company was doing work on payments, and the former president of PayPal was recently hired in another sign the Menlo Park, CA-based company is serious about the sector.

Aude's screenshot shows code enabling Facebook users to add a debit card to their account to make a payment. Aude told TechCrunch that users would be able to hit one button and then type in the amount they wanted to send. Facebook would keep the transaction private and not publish anything onto the news feed, according to Aude. He added that the feature could be rolled out within the next few months.

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Facebook said it did not comment on rumor or speculation.

Facebook ecosystem

It is unknown whether Facebook would charge for this feature, but analysts suggested the move was key to keeping users in the social media's ecosystem.

"For Facebook it is really about making sure people are staying engaged with its apps and services and it doesn't want to put people off its products," Jack Kent, senior mobile analyst at IHS, told CNBC by phone. "Everything it does is to keep users within the Facebook world."

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The code for a payments system within Facebook was first uncovered by security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski last month, but Aude took it one step further by accessing it through the Cycript tool. Cycript allows users to modify and play with the code in apps.

Facebook's Messenger app displayed on a smartphone.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Payments will initially be just individual-to-individual, according to a note in the code discovered by Aude, but group payments look to be enabled eventually.

"In the short term, we will only support single payment attachment. Multiple payment attachments will be supported in the future," the note said.

Bigger plans?

The move is not surprising given the increasing competition in the online and mobile payments space.

Apple unveiled its plans for Apple Pay last month, which allows users to purchase items by touching their iPhone or Apple Watch on a payments device in store. And last week, eBay split off PayPal in a move that signals increasing focus on the payments space.

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Facebook is well-positioned to move into this sector, according to analysts, as it can leverage its 1.23 billion monthly active users.

On the company's most recent earnings call, Zuckerberg said the company would not "compete directly" in the online payments space, and would instead be a "partner" to others in the sector.

But analysts suggested the Messenger payments system could lay the groundwork for a bigger plan.

"Ultimately, Facebook already has a large and very engaged active user base, and it will now integrate additional transactional services to ensure that it rapidly acquires users' payments details," Enrique Velasco-Castillo, digital economy analyst at Analysys Mason, told CNBC by email. "(This) can be coupled in turn with a more comprehensive mobile payments, advertising, and location-based marketing portfolio."

- By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal