Another Facebook trick? Facebook is making its move into the mobile instant messaging market with a standalone app for iPhone and Android called Facebook Messenger. It is set to provide competition for platform-specific apps like Research In Motion’s BBM and Apple’s iMessage, as well as the messaging elements of Google+. Released last night in the US – although it is not yet available in the UK – the application ties into the existing Facebook Messages feature on its website, which aggregates texts, chats, emails and instant messages. The app can be used to send messages to Facebook friends or other people in the user’s phone address book, delivering them by notification or text.
“More and more of us rely on our phones to send and receive messages. But it isn’t always easy to know the best way to reach someone on their phone. Should you send an email or text? Which will they check first? Did they even get your last message?” wrote Facebook engineer Lucy Zhang in a blog post introducing the new app. “We think messaging should be easier than that. You should be able to write a message, click ‘Send’ and know that you will reach the person right away.”
Zhang was the co-founder of mobile group-messaging startup Beluga, which was acquired by Facebook in March 2011. Its technology forms the core of the new Facebook Messenger app. The latter includes group messaging features and the ability to attach location data and photos to conversations. News site 9 to 5 Mac has already discovered code within the app that hints at video conferencing being added at a later point.
App-based mobile messaging is a crowded space at the moment. BBM remains hugely popular, with RIM saying at the end of July that its BlackBerry-only service has more than 45 million users. BBM can now be integrated into other BlackBerry apps using the BBM Social API, which was recently released to developers. RIM has been facing questions in the UK this week over the use of its private messaging network by people involved in riots around the UK, although RIM has said it will cooperate with police investigations.
Apple unveiled its equivalent to BBM, iMessage, at its WWDC conference in June 2011. It will be part of the iOS 5 software that is due for release in the autumn, and is a native messaging system that can be used across iOS devices, working over Wi-Fi and 3G.
The platform-specific nature of these apps has left an opportunity for other services that run across a range of smartphones and tablets. WhatsApp Messenger was used by nearly 800,000 mobile users in the UK alone in April this year according to comScore – more than Skype – while Canadian startup Kik signed up millions of users for its Kik Messenger app in late 2010 before provoking a patent infringement lawsuit from RIM.