Why Facebook Will Have Trouble Killing the Text Message

Facebook has started to roll out a new version of its Messenger app for Android that only requires a name and a phone number, not an actual Facebook account, to sign up.

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Facebook has started to roll out a new version of its Messenger app for Android that only requires a name and a phone number, not an actual Facebook account, to sign up.

Although the new Facebook Messenger app is only available in a handful of countries for now–Australia, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Venezuela–it will eventually roll out to the United States and elsewhere, allowing users to chat with their phone contacts even if they’re not using Facebook. This news has set the tech world atwitter with proclamations that the new Messenger is an assault on the lowly text message (including one such proclamation from Facebook itself).

It’s a nice thought, at least. Given that a single text to your neighbor can cost more than a data transmission from Mars, who wouldn’t relish the idea of wireless carriers getting their comeuppance? In reality, though, standard SMS has a lot going for it, and will likely weather all kinds of assaults, especially one from Facebook.

For one thing, Facebook Messenger faces the same adoption hurdle as other Internet-based messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber: It requires a conscious decision not to use traditional SMS. With Facebook Messenger, you must first consider whether the recipient has Facebook installed, and is set up to receive notifications for new messages. Then, you must commit to using the Messenger app instead of your phone’s built-in SMS functionality. Once you do that, the conversation is locked into Facebook unless you have one of the select Android phones that can integrate regular text messages.

That’s a lot to consider compared to the standard SMS, which is guaranteed to reach and alert the recipient as long as you have the right phone number. To truly threaten the text message, Facebook Messenger needs the kind of tight smartphone integration found in Apple’s iMessage, which automatically replaces standard text messages between any two iPhone users. That’s not really possible unless Facebook starts making its own smartphones.

In lieu of tighter smartphone integration, Facebook simply has to compete with similar services that are already well-established. As Boy Genius Report points out, competitor WhatsApp is already a Top 5 messaging app in 141 countries and handles 10 billion messages per day. (Compare that to 7.8 trillion regular text messages sent in 2011, according to Portio Research, for an average of 21 billion messages per day.) Competition is good, but in this case it means users will be fragmented across multiple services that can’t talk to one another.

Ideally, these competing services would somehow find a way to work with each other, so a Facebook user could send a message to someone who uses Whatsapp or Viber. It sounds crazy, but considering that wireless carriers found a way to make it work with SMS, tech companies should be able to figure out a solution.

I acknowledge that the need for SMS alternatives is more desperate outside the United States, where the price per message can be cost-prohibitive. But in the land of all-you-can-eat messaging, if you really need to reach someone, SMS remains the most reliable option, and Facebook Messenger only poses a minor threat.