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Facebook takes aim at SMS with new Messenger app

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Facebook has unveiled an update to its Messenger app for Android aimed at getting mobile users off SMS and onto the social network's own messaging service.

Beginning on Tuesday, users no longer need a full Facebook account to access Messenger. Instead, they can sign up for the service using nothing more than their names and their mobile numbers.

Under the new system, the service verifies each new account by sending an SMS message containing a code to the user's mobile number. Once the user has entered that code into the Messenger app, the new account is activated. From then on, the phone number and a password are all that are needed to logon.

By allowing customers without Facebook accounts to access Messenger, Facebook brings the service that much closer to its goal of bringing all forms of electronic chat – including, email, IM, and SMS – under a single, unified messaging umbrella.

Of course, Facebook Messenger isn't the first such service to challenge the venerable SMS for mobile-to-mobile messaging supremacy. A variety of cross-platform alternatives are available that ride on top of a user's wireless internet service, including Apple's iMessage, Google Voice, Skype, and offerings from startups such as WhatsApp.

But Facebook is banking on two things with this update. First, it reckons Messenger will be more useful to Facebook members if they can use it to reach contacts who have yet to join the social network. And second, it's hoping people who grow accustomed to using the service might be tempted to try out the other features Facebook has to offer, too.

For now, however, the new, phone-based signup system seems to be off to a rocky start. While your Reg hack was able to download the new app and successfully created a Messenger account using only a phone number, there didn't seem to be much more to do with the app from there.

Naturally, because the app had created a brand-new account, its Contacts list was completely empty. But there was no option to scan the phone's address book for contacts, and there didn't seem to be any way to add contacts manually, either. Typing things into the Search box yielded no results.

There could be several reasons for our lack of success, however. First, Facebook says that although the new version of the Facebook Messenger Android app is available in the Google Play store now, "Messenger accounts will become available over the next few weeks." It's possible that the account we created today was not yet fully provisioned.

It's also possible that phone-only Messenger accounts won't truly be ready in the US for a while yet. On Tuesday, Facebook told The New York Times that it planned to offer the new sign-up system in Australia, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Venezuela first, with other markets to follow. Facebook reps did not immediately respond to El Reg's request for clarification.

Either way, it appears that customers who have full Facebook accounts will still get the most out of Messenger, for the time being at least. If you do try out the new system, though – the Messenger app is a free download and it contains no ads – let us know if you have any success. ®

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