August 10, 2011 6:52 pm

Facebook launches Messenger app

Instant messaging graphic

Facebook has launched a new instant-messaging application for smartphones to compete with similar services such as WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger, as the booming market for chat apps threatens mobile operators’ traditional revenues.

Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger – known as BBM – leapt to prominence this week after it emerged as an organisational tool used by rioters and looters in London, due to its popularity among British teenagers and ability instantly to send private messages to large groups of friends.

Some analysts are concerned that operators’ voice and text revenues could get hit if consumers increasingly use instant messaging, especially outside “bundled” SMS and calling time.

Because their messages are delivered over the internet, BBM and other mobile IM services are much cheaper than traditional SMS, even when texting abroad. They also provide extra features such as notifications of delivery, chatting in small groups and photo-sharing.

Graham Brown, of the consultancy Mobile Youth, found that for BlackBerry-owning 16-year-olds in the UK, 80 per cent of mobile messages are sent via BBM, with just 15 per cent over SMS and 5 per cent on other platforms such as e-mail. Five years ago 90 per cent would have been SMS. “If it wasn’t for BBM, they would be switching to iPhone a lot quicker,” Mr Brown said.

In response, Apple is planning to introduce a similar group-chat service, iMessage, as part of a software update for its iPhone and iPad devices in the autumn.

But while Apple and BlackBerry’s IM apps are restricted to owners of their particular brand of smartphones, other standalone services enable people to chat across a range of platforms. WhatsApp Messenger, created by a US start-up, has risen high in Apple’s App Store in Europe, the US and India since adding a group-chat feature in February, while Groupme launched internationally this month after making its US debut in May.

The popularity of these services has recently attracted the attention of Google and Facebook.

Google+, the search group’s new social network, includes a mobile chat service called “Huddle”. On Tuesday, Facebook released its first standalone smartphone app to bring more advanced chat features than are available in its existing smartphone applications. Facebook Messenger quickly rose to become the most downloaded app on Apple’s iPhone in the US, the only region it is currently available.

Facebook’s app “has the potential to achieve a greater reach than BBM, WhatsApp, KakaoTalk or the as-yet-unlaunched iMessage,” said Pamela Clark-Dickson, messaging analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, because it works across platforms and is tied to Facebook’s 750m-member social network.

“That would have an impact on mobile operators insofar as people might use these apps instead of SMS,” Ms Clark-Dickson said. “If operators are already offering large bundles of SMS it may not be so much of an issue.”

WhatsApp is so popular in the Netherlands that KPN, the largest Dutch telecoms operator, blamed it for an 8 per cent decline in SMS volumes in its first quarter. An estimated 85 per cent of KPN’s “Hi brand” customers – primarily 18-24 year olds – using Android smartphones have installed WhatsApp.

SMS remains the only messaging service that works on any mobile phone, giving operators one advantage over these more nimble technology companies.

A letter to the European Commission last autumn from Europe’s five largest telecoms operators, including Vodafone and Telefonica, said that they planned to introduced “Rich Communication Suite” technology to their networks, which would provide new interoperable services including video sharing and “status” messages.

But Ms Clark-Dickson said it could be years before operators make RCS widely available: “Nothing has been launched yet and they may be a bit late to the party.”

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