Will Facebook Messenger kill SMS? (spoiler: a little)

The announcement of it caught me by surprise today, but Facebook released a new app called Messenger, a standalone iOS/Android app that handles just your Facebook messages. It adds a couple features to make it well suited to phone-to-phone communication and group planning, but it’s mostly a pretty simple app.

I used it a bit today, and it’s really elegant. It lets you really easily send text and picture messages to friends or groups of friends, and it does it really quickly. It loads almost instantly, so there is almost no loss compared to the native Messages app.

This was really a genius move on Facebook’s part, but most of the really cool things about its future (which I’ll go into in a moment) really just reflect Facebook’s best assets. Many people are convinced that this is a nail in SMS’s coffin. It very well could be, but it’d have a long way to go.

Facebook isn’t the first company to come out with a smartphone text messaging platform. Blackberry, Groupme, Volly, Apple and many others have released their own offerings. Many even offer bridges to SMS for those friends who don’t have it, but because natively sending messages in all of these platforms requires some action on the user’s part (even if trivial, like downloading an app and making an account) it’s already probably going to be dead in the water in terms of gaining friction. There already exists a text messaging platform with the ultimate ubiquity: SMS. Indeed, it’s a ripoff. To say that profit margins for SMS are above 90% is a very conservative estimate. Sending a text message costs virtually nothing and carriers are making bank from SMS. However, people love and stick with SMS because you can send an SMS to just about any phone number and you can count on the recipient being able to receive it and being able to natively text you back. Whenever a replacement service comes along, there aren’t that many users you can say that for initially, and so the service falls back to using an SMS from what is undoubtedly a strange number to the recipient, usually with some wrapper information saying “hey, this is a text from <3rd party service>“. Your friend could install the free app, but probably won’t. After all, why install this brand new app and totally separate messaging system just to talk to this one person? And the friend never installs it and the original sender stops using the service and just falls back to using SMS.

This is where Facebook’s assets come in. Chances are that the friend you’re texting is using Facebook. 94% of Americans under 50 have an account (i heard it from a commenter on TechCrunch, so it must be true). That little gem of a statistic right there is why Skype was all over having their technology used for Facebook’s video chat (which doesn’t require a standalone app). It’s why thousands (actually, millions) of web sites are starting to use Facebook to let people log in. A lot of web sites switched to using Facebook accounts as an identifier for posting comments. Facebook (and to an extent Twitter) has become a de facto standard for your online identity. I think this is far more important to Facebook than anything. Sure, a deep level of information about users can be valuable, and it makes Facebook appealing to advertise on (that gives Facebook some financial stability) but Facebook profiles are a fantastic way to identify people. Email addresses are poor identifiers. Phone numbers are poor. Facebook addresses that easily by being a pseudo address book, and in the case of sending messages, the name of the person is the unique identifier.

It’s really far too early to tell but I think this ubiquity is going to give Facebook Messenger a real shot at replacing SMS for a lot of people. Facebook isn’t on every cell phone on the planet like SMS, but I’m willing to bet that well over 75% of Facebook account holding smartphone owners have the Facebook app installed, and they would more than likely also install the Facebook Messenger app.

Facebook has a lot of viral things going for it here, too. The ability to send a message from the desktop to a mobile device is surely useful (one of the things I miss most about primarily using Google Voice) and especially useful for the non-cellphone owners.

If Facebook succeeds in reaching a critical mass of users it’s going to put a sizable cut in SMS usage in the medium term. People will hold onto their SMS plans for that shrinking number of friends who only can be reached by SMS. Eventually that pool of people will just include feature phone holdouts who won’t buy an iPhone and Facebook holdouts who are convinced that Facebook is harvesting data about who Marco is having sex with to sell to some corporation who is willing to pay a good price for information like that.

Then again, maybe Facebook won’t reach that critical mass, and it will just be one more competing standard for methods of text communication. I’ve sure seen a few of those in my time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read this iMessage that just came in.

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