Facebook today announced an update to its Messenger app for Android that will enable users to join the online messaging service without having a Facebook account or an email address. The new Messenger app will be rolled out in India, Indonesia, Venezuela, Australia and South Africa initially and will be followed soon by other countries. Users will be able to join Facebook Messenger by just giving their name and phone number, which suggests Facebook is targeting first-time online users who do not have a Facebook account or email address. Facebook has tied up with a carrier in India but the name has not been revealed, yet.
UPDATE: Facebook has announced it has partnered with all major carriers and device manufacturers in India for Facebook Messenger.
The announcement comes on the heels of a report that linked Facebook to be in talks to acquire WhatsApp, which offers similar messenger service and has gone viral. The company does not reveal its user base but it is said to be over 100 million users already. WhatsApp recently announced a tie-up with RCom in India that offered unlimited WhatsApp access for Rs 16 per month. Just like the new Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp uses the user’s phone number for verification and scans their phonebook for other WhatsApp users. It does not require an email address or a Google or Facebook account for verification, enabling just about everyone with access to the Internet to use the service. It is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Symbian and even S40 operating systems, ensuring almost every phone user can have WhatsApp.
Major players like Facebook, Google and others failed to notice this huge growth potential a couple of years ago even as they concentrated on the already-online user base while WhatsApp bloomed. With saturation in user growth, the challenge for most online services at the moment is to get offline users to sign up for online services. These users do not have an email address, which so far has been the primary method of verification for almost every online service. For first-time users, their phone number is turning out to be the preferred credential verification tool. Facebook recently started offering Rs 50 talk time to first-time users who signed up on Facebook via their mobile phones.
Carriers can be seen more than willing to partner on such initiatives as it increases the number of users who start accessing online services. With SMS and voice tariffs bottoming out, it is only data services that can increase their Arpu (Average Revenue Per User).
The question for Facebook is whether it can still replace WhatsApp as the universal IM app on mobile or is it too late already? That is difficult to say at the moment but one thing is for certain, Facebook needs to roll it out across mobile operating systems to make any significant headway or try to acquire WhatsApp.