Facebook has entered the race to replace SMS in earnest today, announcing that its messenger app for Android will no longer require a Facebook account to sign up. Instead, it's taking a page from WhatsApp by allowing users to sign up with nothing more than a phone number and a name.
At its 20-year anniversary, the lowly SMS message is under assault from a lot of players besides Facebook. Offering the app without requiring a Facebook account is a surprising first for the company, but perhaps necessary to ensure that there are no hurdles between it and the thing that will most likely crown the messaging king: ubiquity.
The lowly SMS message is under assault
WhatsApp has clearly taken the lead in the space — though it hasn't publicly discussed numbers in some time, back in August it touted 10 billion messages a day, recently surpassed 100 million downloads on Google Play, and is consistently in the top apps list on Apple's App Store internationally. BlackBerry Messenger, once the king in the space, has managed to maintain some relevance internationally as well, with CEO Thorsten Heins telling us that "there's good co-existence" with WhatsApp and BBM. Apple has iMessage, of course, though it's limited to iOS devices. Kik, once thought to be the leader, is trying to reinvent MMS to bolster its 30-million userbase. KakaoTalk, WeChat, the list of competitive messaging apps goes on and the userbases can number in the hundreds of millions. Even Samsung is taking a half-hearted stab at the market with ChatOn.
Facebook is hoping that it can be the go-to app for messaging
In this crowded and competitive space, Facebook is hoping that it can be the go-to app for messaging. The change isn't just to entice non-Facebook users to install, but to make it easier to just use Facebook's Messenger app to begin any text-based communication. Some Android phones already have SMS integration and if you send a message to somebody not on Facebook, it will prompt them to download Facebook Messenger for their phone.
The update will initially only be available in a few countries — India, Australia, Indonesia, Venezuela, and South Africa — but Facebook tells us that it will expand beyond that as quickly as possible. Facebook notes that the initial launch countries aren't necessarily indicative of a specific strategy, and instead just the first markets before the full, international push. Still, it's difficult not to notice that the countries it's launching in are some of the last strongholds of BBM and current growth areas for WhatsApp. Facebook says that it will bring a similar update to iOS sometime in the future, but there's no timeline on that yet.
Facebook wants users to think about its Messenger app for texting, period — not just sending Facebook messages. If it's able to convince a sufficient number of users to do just that (and get an iOS-compatible version out in time), it will be one more reason that every smartphone could secretly be a Facebook phone.