After speculation of the social networking giant being in talks with the mobile-only instant messaging network, WhatsApp, to acquire it, and WhatsApp eventually refuting it, Facebook has now launched a revamped version of its mobile messenger app, Facebook Messenger, that allows users to sign-up for the service, even if they don’t have a Facebook account. What’s more, the messenger can check the user’s phonebook for numbers which are associated with his contacts’ Facebook accounts, and display them as contacts which can be messaged via the Messenger app.

Interestingly, the service has only been rolled out on Messenger for Android, first in India, Australia, Indonesia, Venezuela and South Africa, with other countries to follow in the near future. Users can sign up for a messenger account with just their name and phone number, and they can send messages to their phone contacts instantly. The Messenger is free to download, and it uses existing the phone’s data plan. Note that people who don’t have the Messenger app on their phone but have a Facebook account and show up on the Messenger list, receive chats and messages sent to them wherever they log into Facebook.

We tried using the app on a Galaxy Nexus, and were able to sign-up with our phone number in a couple of seconds. Just like WhatsApp, the messenger verifies the user through a numeric code, sent via SMS. The app then automatically started scanning our phone book and added contacts who’re on Facebook, even though they’re not connected to us on Facebook. It allows users to send text and pictures, at this moment. Note that WhatsApp also allows users to send audio notes, contacts and videos.

   

Will It Be a WhatsApp Challenger?

Although the roll-out of the app is limited, and one of the reasons for this might be Facebook’s relationship with carriers, since it competes with SMS, at least on smart phones, it would be interesting to see if it’s able to get users of instant messaging tools like WhatsApp, WeChat, Imsy, Viber and Hike, switch to Messenger. Integration with Facebook makes finding contacts very simple, and the app has an edge over WhatsApp as your messages will be delivered to the user irrespective of whether he/she has messenger installed. This might be a little intrusive for some users, but then they’re also sharing their phone number with the user at an individual level, so it’s just another way of communicating.

While WhatsApp does not make a lot of announcements, it’s increasingly getting active on the telco tie-ups front. It recently inked a deal with Reliance Communications. Facebook had been active on this front and was even offering free data for Facebook access with a number of telecom operators. Even in its latest press statement, it has mentioned that its partners in India include all major carriers and device manufacturers. This might imply that Facebook could offer its Messenger app on low-cost Android devices made by companies such as Micromax, Karbonn and Lava, among others to pre-embed the app in their devices, reaching out to a large number of users. On the telco front, Facebook might plan to introduce special data plans with telcos, offering free data usage for the Messenger service.

We believe that Facebook Messenger could be the only real challenger to WhatsApp in India. WhatsApp does offer a client for Nokia’s Series 40 feature phones but if Facebook launches this version of Messenger on other platforms including a version for feature phones, then it might see itself becoming the most popular mobile IM app, even after being a late entrant in the segment.