This past spring, Facebook made it abundantly clear that it didn't intend to sit on the sidelines as messaging apps like WhatsApp gathered hundreds of millions of active users per month. Facebook Home, the company's most progressive piece of mobile software ever, elevated chatting with friends above everything else on your Android device. The latest version of Messenger for Android and iOS hopes to take this idea to the next level, because it doesn't want to feel like part of Facebook. Messenger wants to be something else entirely: a mobile to mobile messaging network like WhatsApp or Kik. The redesigned app begins testing with a random group of Android users today, and will come to everyone on iOS and Android "in the coming weeks."
The new Messenger has largely the same functionality as its predecessors, but features a brand new design meant to emphasize its distance from the main Facebook app. Most importantly, friends' avatars are now circular, and have a little badge on them if a friend is using the Messenger app. In other words, it's instantly clear if a friend you're chatting with is using Facebook Chat on the web, or has the Messenger app on their phone and will receive your chats instantly. This distinction is part of what makes apps like WhatsApp compelling. WhatsApp isn't hooked in to any social network, and there's no ambiguity about how you're chatting with a friend.
"This is a refresh of the Messenger brand," says designer Luke Woods, which focuses not just on "mobile to mobile" but on fitting in with iOS and Android and their respective conventions, like the Send button. The previous version of Messenger, Woods says, was an iOS app visually ported to Android. Before that, Facebook for mobile devices was built using HTML 5 for no platform in particular, but Facebook ditched that plan long ago.
In terms of functionality, there are a host of under-the-hood improvements to make sending and receiving messages faster, says product manager Peter Martinazzi. There are also some front-end tweaks that makes the app faster — especially on Android, where the SMS texting feature, which let you text friends who don't have Facebook, has been removed. "We made a big deal about the SMS feature and it just didn't take off," said a Facebook spokesperson. Removing the ability to send SMS texts from within Facebook Messenger is an interesting move, especially considering KitKat, the next version of Android launching soon, will let users pick their own default SMS app. KitKat would provide Facebook with one more place to insert itself into your digital life, and rumor has it Google plans to make its Hangouts messaging app the default SMS app in Google Play devices like the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.
While Facebook won't let you text a phone number from Messenger, the company plans to use phone numbers in a new way: to identify its users, just like in WhatsApp. Upon opening Messenger for the first time, it will ask you to provide your phone number. Then, the app can match you with people whose numbers you have, but whom you aren't Facebook friends with. Facebook guarantees your messages will reach somebody's inbox if you have their phone number. "The Facebook friend graph is an important graph for you, but everyone also has a phone graph," says Martinazzi. "These are the people who you aren't Facebook friends with, but you have their phone number, like a classmate or coworker." While Facebook has abandoned its plans to replace your texting app wholesale, it's more dedicated than ever to becoming your de facto messaging app.
The messaging wars are hotter and more fragmented than ever. By cutting visual ties between its messaging experience and its main app, Facebook hopes to get its horse back in the race — because features have never been the problem. If anything, the problem has been branding.