Is Facebook Messenger Really an SMS Killer?

This post first appeared on my SAP Blog on August 11, 2011.

Not by a long shot.   But, to read the various headlines such as from BBC, or FierceContent, (and quite a few more — not all of them, mind you, but quite a few) you might get the idea that here is something that will be the true “SMS killer.”  Notwithstanding the over-imaginative headlines, I think Facebook Messenger is nothing more than an expansion of the popular online-based Facebook “chat” service.  I would suspect that this is more of a threat to various Instant Messaging (IM) services than it is to SMS.   The problem with IM is that the various communities have never really been interoperable with one another (which makes for good business for products such as Trillian by Cerulean Studios – users may sign into multiple IM communities using a single client or app).

When we go beyond all of the hype and the fact that is a 2-way messaging capability on a mobile device, what we have here is that Facebook Chat/Messenger is simply another IM Community – albeit a very large and powerful community.  Most IM services offer interaction to SMS – and Facebook Messages is no exception.  Many people are already familiar with getting SMS from the Facebook short codes.   In the case of the new Facebook Messenger app – it enables the Facebook community to interact with their community via a dedicated app.  Facebook Messenger is certainly a nice new expansion for the Facebook community.   But it is far, far from an “SMS killer.”

To call a service an “SMS killer” is one thing, as these writers claim, but many ignore that this service actually leverages SMS – in fact SMS short codes.  I am not saying that Facebook themselves are making this claim – not at all that I am aware of, but there are many who are writing out there that also claim that Apple iMessage – when it launches is part of iOS 5, this fall, will also be an “SMS killer.”   Again, not so fast – and don’t forget – that iMessage will send its messages via SMS, if the destination is not an iOS device!   Again – a closed community, for the most part – this time, among iOS devices – that uses SMS to reach non-iOS devices.

Recall, in a previous blog entry, I talked briefly about the Beluga app – a closed group messaging application that used no telephone numbers – consequently, it is quite different than the various TN-based group messaging capabilities that some NUVOs have launched.   Beluga was acquired by Facebook and looks to be very much integrated into the app and group messaging service that was launched, yesterday.  This app simply confirms that Facebook recognizes that the mobile ecosystem is where they need to be.   I would expect many new and innovative things from Facebook, centered on this communications app.  But an SMS-killer, it is not.   Certainly, there may be some slight cannibalization – whereby users cease to use a mobile operator’s SMS for this – but, as I’ve written about many times before – the NUVOs have long since providing alternative and true SMS-interoperability – something that Facebook has not reproduced here.  And while 750 million users is nothing to sneer at, the global SMS community can reach as many as 5.2 billion subscribers, with an average of 70-80% of subscribers in many markets, heavy users of SMS.

Finally, let’s remember that to us within this industry, we differentiate between a real SMS vs. a “text” sent to another person.  Most users do not differentiate, but they do know how to address messages to other people and they will learn to use these apps and capabilities, if they provide the functionality they are looking for.

Facebook Messenger is certainly not an SMS killer; it actually uses SMS (and has, for quite some time).  But so will iMessage and so does the IM services of MSN, AOL, and Yahoo IM, to name a few.  The point is, that technology behind “texting” or “messaging” is evolving – whether from NUVOs, giant social networks, IM communities, or the MNOs, themselves.   Let’s not rush to judgment and call something an “SMS killer,” just because it does not outwardly use SMS or is not SMS-interoperable.