By Nimit Bhatt
This past March, Facebook made some headlines in the tech world when they acquired Beluga, a mobile group-messaging application founded by three former employees of Google. The result of this acquisition is unique, as Facebook is known more for acquiring companies for its workers, rather than the product itself  . On Tuesday, Facebook unraveled Messenger, a stand-alone mobile application exclusively for Facebook Chat. However, Chat is taken one step further in this app with the addition of picture messaging, location sharing, and group messaging. Messenger quickly soared to the top of the “Most Downloaded” list in the iTunes App Store, but sits low in the Android Market with well over half a million downloads. You can download Messenger for iOS here and Android here
This is definitely a huge step for Facebook and a great attempt to come back into the spotlight. The past few weeks saw the release of Google+, which many users have mixed feelings about, but with a general liking of the simple, easy-to-use interface, making Facebook’s page look bloated in a side-by-side comparison. Facebook also debuted its new Messaging platform on their website, which now features Skype video chat integration, true merging of the messaging inbox and chat sections, and a not-so-popular list of your “most contacted” friends that just sits open on the right side of the page. The addition of so many features to the site sent many users to Google+ for its fresh, clean interface. However, now that the “honeymoon phase” of Google+ is over, people are going back to regularly using Facebook, because, well, that’s where everyone is.
Messenger definitely appeals to those who own an iOS or Android device and have a limited texting plan. It is an attack on mobile carriers who charge for SMS and MMS messages, since users can avoid SMS charges by using Messaging. Messaging is different than SMS messaging because it literally is an instant chat, rather than a short delay to send/receive text messages. The interface is very simple, as it should be. You have a list of all of your conversations, and a button to compose a new message which sits at the top- right of the window. When you select a conversation, you have to option of replying by text, or attaching a picture. You can do this by taking a picture with the phone’s camera, or attaching one already in your phone’s gallery. You can also attach a picture by doing an image search using Bing, built directly into the application, which is one of my favorite features. While in a conversation, you can also choose to share your location when sending a message. By default, location services will always be on, and you can toggle whether you want to share your location or not via tapping a compass arrow in the input box for each conversation. By tapping on the gear symbol at the top right of the conversation window, you will be brought to a page with three tabs: Settings, People, and Map. Settings allow you to turn on/off alerts for this specific conversation, including a nifty feature that lets you turn off alerts off for one hour or off until 8:00am, so you can sleep peacefully with no interruptions. The People tab allows you to view exactly who you are chatting with, and extremely useful when you are in a group chat. Finally, there is a Map tab that lets you view where your location is in relation to the person/people you are chatting with, powered by Google Maps, but only if they agree to share their location. While in the Map tab, you can still see incoming messages via a small drop-down at the top of the screen. The best part of Messenger is that everything stays synced between the web client and smartphone app. You can start one conversation while on Facebook.com, and then continue it on the go with your smartphone. All conversations are saved on the phone and on your profile. And you can delete or archive messages online of on your smartphone and it all stays synced. These are just some of the main features of Messenger.
Messenger also has its pitfalls. While it is nice to have a completely separate application for Chat, it would still be nice if there was some bridge between the two apps, allowing me, for example, to see the profile of whoever I am conversing with, or to see their latest “status” under their name in the contact list. Another downfall is that it is only available on iOS and Android. Yes, Research in Motion (RIM), the creator of Blackberry smartphones has had its troubles, but there are still a significant amount of users out there and it would be smart to release a version for RIM, which would outstandingly increase their market. Surprisingly, Windows Phone 7 users are also left in the dark. You would think with Microsoft’s recent purchase of Skype, which has also partnered with Facebook, Windows Phone 7 users would be guaranteed Messenger. Especially considering the fact that this platform is gaining more and more smartphone market share it would make sense. However, Messenger is very new, and an early adopter such as myself can’t expect it to be perfect out of the box.
So what does this mean for the future of mobile text communication? Messenger certainly isn’t the first of its kind, and more competitors are on their way. We have seen services such as Blackberry Messenger (BBM). Of course, with RIM taking what seems to be a “Niagara Fall,” if you will, in the smartphone world, it doesn’t seem to have much use anymore. A downfall of BBM what that it was strictly for Blackberry-to-Blackberry communication. Google+ released Huddle, which was to serve the same purpose as Messenger, however, all parties need to have the application in order to communicate. Conversations are also only stored on the phone, and not integrated with G-Chat as many hoped. This fall, with the release of iOS 5, Apple will be releasing “iMessage” which will be built into the standard SMS app, allowing users to communicate instantly, just like Messenger and BBM, however only to other iOS users. This does show promise because it is not just iPhone-to-iPhone, it includes all iOS devices, including iPod Touches and iPads that are running iOS 5. And for those who own multiple iOS devices, iMessage stays in sync across all your devices, which is also a plus. However, this is a feature that is only in beta testing at this time, so we really won’t know how successful iMessage is until the release of iOS 5, which will be sometime in the fall, along with a new iPhone. You can read about all of the new features in iOS 5 here
The release of Messenger certainly does stir things up in the world of mobile communication. With everybody and their mom (literally) on Facebook, texting could become a thing of the past, unless you want to vote for your favorite American Idol or donate to the Red Cross by texting those five-digit numbers. Rumors also point to Messenger eventually integrating video chat, which would open a whole new door, as users owning a smartphone with a front-facing camera will be able to video chat with each other, and possibly even with someone who is sitting at their computer via webcam  .