Facebook Just Out-iMessaged iMessage — And SMS Is More Screwed Than Ever

Facebook did a strange thing today: they released a mobile application separate from their main app. They’ve never done this before. But it’s genius. And it’s yet another long-term thorn in the side of SMS.

Facebook Messenger is a stand-alone app for iOS and Android. It essentially merges the Beluga product that Facebook acquired in February with their revamped Messages product. Now it makes sense why Facebook wanted to make it clear that the Beluga deal was for both talent and technology (Facebook almost always does just talent acquisition deals).

Shortly after the deal, Jason Kincaid and I talked about the ramifications of the acquisition on our OMG/JK show for TechCrunch TV (video below). We were both in agreement that while it would be out-of-character for Facebook to do so, they absolutely should release a new stand-alone messaging app. The reason? Speed and simplicity are key in the space. The Messages product inside of the current Facebook apps offered neither.

Now, with Messenger, Facebook is ready to roll into this space. Should competitors like GroupMe and Kik be worried? Maybe, but they’re iterating quickly and adding new features to try and stand out. They’ll have to do that a bit faster now as a player with 750 million built-in potential users just entered the space.

But the service that should be perhaps more worried about Messenger is the still-unlaunched iMessage. Announced by Apple at WWDC in June, iMessage is a new messaging platform that will be a part of the default SMS application in iOS 5. That gives it a huge leg up, obviously. But it’s also potentially going to be harder to use than Facebook’s new Messenger.

The reason is that iMessage, like FaceTime, relies on user email addresses to work (or phone number if they have an iPhone, but only if they have an iPhone). Developers with access to the iOS 5 beta that I’ve spoken with complain that they often run into problems trying to send iMessages because they have no idea what email address their friends’ accounts are tied to. This is the same problem that FaceTime has faced.

Apple does this because email addresses are also how they define identity for Apple ID. But plenty of people have multiple email addresses, and may use a strange one for their Apple ID. For example, I do. You can add other email addresses where people can find you in the settings of iOS, but most users are never going to do this. The system is not ideal.

Much more ideal is using your Facebook connections and actual name look-ups — which Messenger obviously does. Or, if the person you’re trying to reach doesn’t use Facebook, or you’re not connected, you can use a phone number to connect. Yes, you could also do this through iMessage, but whereas Messenger will likely use SMS to bring users into the app, iMessage SMS connections are more likely to continue as SMS communications. While there are some differences between an iMessage and an SMS, they basically look the same, and again, reside in the same app.

Facebook Messenger will also clearly handle group messaging better than iMessage. Whereas iMessage seems like system to circumvent SMS — and for good reason, SMS remains one of the biggest rip-offs out there — Messenger feels like something that goes well beyond it.

Code found today within Messenger by 9to5 Mac suggests that Facebook will soon add video chat capabilities to the app as well. This makes sense, given Facebook’s recent tie-up with Skype for such functionality.

There’s one other big reason why Messenger is likely to out-iMessage iMessage: cross-platform compatibility. iMessage will only work for iOS users. Facebook Messenger works on both iOS and Android devices. And there is one other massive place Messenger messages work: Facebook.com.

Using it today, it’s clear that this is the true power of Facebook Messenger. Someone messages me, and I get it sent to my phone and the message pops up in Facebook on the web, if I have it open. If I don’t, the message goes into my Messages area and I can access it later. It’s seamless.

This iOS/Android/Web compatibility is a big reason why Beluga was my favorite group messaging app. With Facebook.com now the web component of this system, things just got kicked up a notch.

One thing is more clear than ever before: between iMessages, Beluga, GroupMe, Kik, Google’s new Huddle feature of Google+, and now Facebook Messenger, SMS is under complete and utter assault. Yes, most of those service are compatible with SMS, but only so they can be parasitic off of it.

As a standard that works across all mobile devices, SMS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But with the rise of tablets and the continued use of other computing devices, cross-device messaging is going to come into its own one way or another. And SMS, which is more or less a racket that has been run by the carriers for far too long, is not the way forward.

Good riddance.