Facebook Messenger: a New Standalone Group Messaging Mobile App Built Off Beluga

Facebook has just launched a new free standalone mobile group messaging app for iPhone and Android called Facebook Messenger. It allows users to conduct one-on-one or group conversations, send photos, and privately share their location. Messages are delivered via push notifications to those with the app, and SMS, Facebook Chat, or Facebook Messages to those without it. The app heavily incorporates functionality and design from group messaging app Beluga, which Facebook acquired in March, and whose founders headed development.

Facebook Messenger should help users coordinate meetups and find each other, increase usage of Facebook’s direct communication channels, and compete with GroupMe and Fast Society. This is the first standalone app from the social network, which otherwise aggregates all its functionality into its primary “Facebook for…” native apps. This and leaked information about a standalone photo sharing app indicate that Facebook has recognized the demand for more lightweight, streamlined, specialized mobile apps.

A Shift to Standalone Apps

The integrated messaging platform Facebook launched in November unified Chat, Messages, mobile push notifications, and email, allowing users to have a seamless conversation regardless of what interface the participants were using. Other group messaging apps still worked better though, prompting Facebook to acquire Beluga, which already had a strong Facebook integration. Facebook Messenger goes one step further, allowing users to add contacts from their phone who they aren’t Facebook friends with to a conversation via SMS. While other group messaging apps, including Beluga, pay third-party cloud communication service Twilio to convert API calls into SMS, Facebook has built its own in-house SMS syndication system.

Before Messenger, users of Facebook’s mobile interfaces had to go through several clicks to check their Messages inbox. Ben Davenport, former co-founder and CEO of Beluga who also previously worked at Google, explained the need for a standalone app: “Messaging is so core to what people do on the phone. It has to be on the desktop. It needs to be fast and go directly in. Speed matters, because people are brutal when choosing communication tools.”

Messenger definitely lets you get to what you need in a single click, something its competitors previously had as an advantage over Facebook’s all-in-one apps. But with Facebook offering so many different features, a proliferation of standalone apps could lead more of a user’s home screen to be filled with Facebook than they want. In June, plans for a standalone Facebook mobile photo sharing app leaked. Facebook will need to make tough decisions about whether other features, such as Events, would work well as standalone apps.

Facebook isn’t promoting the app with any news feed stories about those who install Messenger, and the indication on the web interface that a message was sent from Messenger don’t link to the download page. Still, being branded with the Facebook name and its inherent virality could help it quickly grow to have millions of users. By launching before Google+ Huddles can gain traction, other group messaging apps can get any more popular, and as RIM with its BlackBerry Messenger stumbles, Facebook could be the first to take cross-medium group messaging mainstream.

Facebook Messenger Functionality

Once users have downloaded Facebook Messenger from the App Store or Android Marketplace and logged in, they’ll see all their existing Facebook inbox conversations imported. Users can start a conversation by adding one or more of their Facebook friends or phone numbers from their phone’s contacts. If someone is both a friend and a contact, users can select where to deliver the conversation’s messages. The app can help users save money on their mobile phone bill by allowing them to sidestep use of SMS while still sending real-time messages.

One of the most useful features is the option to click an arrow icon and include one’s current location with a message via a push-pinned map. This will make it easy for friends to find each other, especially in crowded public spaces such as parks or concert where meeting up is the goal but giving directions in text is difficult. Location is kept private within a conversation, and not published to Facebook via Places.

Other Facebook Messenger users can view a map within the app showing the locations of all conversation participants that have shared the info, or opt to click through to the Google Maps mobile app and get directions. Those receiving messages via Facebook’s web interface can open a Bing Map of the location from their inbox, but those accessing messages through Facebook’s primary mobile apps or m.facebook.com can’t see locations of others.

Users may also share photos with their messages. One thing lacking in Messenger that’s available in the primary mobile apps is the ability to search within or across conversations.

Push notifications alert users to new messages when they aren’t using the app. If this gets too noisy, though, they can mute all their conversations or specific ones temporarily or indefinitely.

To organize conversations, users can add a title and photo. To protect privacy, if users try to add more people to a one-on-one conversation, the message history is cleared. If they add additional participants to an existing conversation, they’re warned that these new people will be able see the conversation’s history.

Most of Facebook’s acquisitions have been talent-driven, or led to more subtle integrations of existing products. In this case, though, Facebook found a great service it didn’t offer, bought it, re-skinned it, wired it into its own system, and five months later it has significant new value to offer users. The sleek interface and deep integration into one of the world’s most popular instant messaging services could make Facebook Messenger an important part of every day communication.

>Read more about How Beluga Metamorphosed Into Facebook Messenger, including an interview with Lucy Zhang of the Messenger and Beluga teams, at Inside Mobile Apps