Facebook opens mobile Messenger app to non-users in play for ubiquity

Facebook today announced that it would begin allowing non-Facebook users to use its standalone Messenger app on Android to send messages to the contacts in their phonebook who are on Facebook or also use Messenger.

By opening its messaging service to non-Facebook users, the social network can reach millions of people who haven’t created Facebook accounts. When a Facebook user has friends who aren’t on Facebook, they have had to reach them by other means. Now, these people can push their friends to use Messenger without joining Facebook so that their communications can be more unified. Messenger could end up being a gateway for many more people to sign up for Facebook or reactivate their accounts.

The move could also reduce fragmentation in the messaging space. SMS and mobile chat apps still account for billions of messages each day, though these services often cost money whereas Facebook is free. And unlike other free chat apps, Messenger does not include advertising. Users can sign up with just a a name and phone number.

Messenger, first launched in 2011, supports group messaging, photo sharing, location sharing, emoticons and more. The service is cross-platform so a user could send a message from their phone, and the friend could receive it on mobile or desktop, either in their inbox or as a chat message if they’re online. Messenger is also available as a desktop application for Windows and natively within the latest version of the Firefox browser. Users can see their messages with a friend in a single thread. Because most users have connected with Facebook on their phone, the social network is able to route messages from non-users to their friends by matching numbers in their contacts list.

For now the option to use Messenger without a Facebook account will be available for Android users in India, Indonesia, Australia, Venezuela and South Africa, which AllThingsD notes have very expensive SMS rates and are likely to be markets that would be most interested in this type of service. The social network says Messenger for non-users will roll out more widely soon, an an iOS and feature phone counterpart is also in the works.

Today’s news comes on the heels of a rumor that Facebook might be interested in acquiring paid multiplatform messaging service WhatsApp. WhatsApp told AllThingsD, “The TechCrunch article is a rumor and not factually accurate. We have no further information to share at the moment.” Facebook did not comment. The fact that the social network is building its own version of the service does not rule out the possibility of acquisition. Facebook bought Instagram after working on its own photo-sharing app, which launched shortly after the company announced its intent to buy Instagram.