Facebook Messenger: Free Voice Calling and Text Messaging

Samsung mobile phone running Facebook messenger with the personal information blurred out

Original photo: Getty Images 

Facebook Messenger is a free mobile messaging and chat app for smart phones that lets people send text messages, hold group chats, share photos or videos, and even make voice calls to their Facebook pals. This instant messaging app is available for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry phones, as well as the iPad.

Typical questions people wonder about this app include: What is the point of using the separate Facebook Messenger app as opposed to the regular Facebook mobile app? Does anyone really need it? Is it any different from Facebook chat?

Main Appeal of Facebook Messenger: Freebies

One of the big draws of Facebook Messenger is that its text messages and voice calls don't count toward the monthly allowance that users have on their cell phones for voice calling or SMS texting plans. That's because messages sent with this standalone app typically go over the Internet, bypassing the carrier's cellular network. So they DO count toward any Internet data use allowance the user has, but DON'T consume any of the SMS messaging quota or voice calling minutes.

Depending on the version installed, Facebook Messenger can also switch between SMS text messaging and Facebook messaging, making it versatile and increasing the likelihood of the recipient receiving the message in real time.

Another draw is that the standalone messaging app is more focused than the general Facebook app even as Messenger offers a good number of hidden features. And the reality is that many people, especially teens and those in their twenties, use Facebook more for messaging than anything else, so they can chat with friends. The mobile Facebook Messenger app puts that function front and center on their phones, without other distracting features like Facebook's news feed or ticker.

Facebook's regular mobile app had built-in instant messaging capability for a long time, but in 2014 Facebook announced it was phasing out that messaging capability and requiring users to download Facebook Messenger if they wanted to do mobile instant messaging. 

Competition in Mobile Messaging is Fierce

Facebook Messenger competes with a ton of other apps in the mobile messaging category. Messaging apps have been particularly popular in Asia, where they are used so much that they've become a primary interface to the online social experience for many millions of people. KakaoTalk (Japan), Line (South Korea) and Nimbuzz (India) are a few popular mobile messaging apps that have been trend-setters. Other standalone mobile messaging apps catching on in the U.S. include Viber, MessageMe and WhatsApp Messenger.

Other big communication platforms and apps that compete, of course, include BlackBerry Messenger and Apple's iMessage for texting, and Apple's FaceTime for video calling. Google's GChat also competes in calling. And Microsoft's Skype provides VOIP voice calling and would be a competitor, except Skype partnered with Facebook to help provide video calling on the social network's platform.

Evolution of Facebook Mobile Communication

Messaging has been one of the most popular features of Facebook's social network  for years, and it's undergone all kinds of name changes and user interface changes as the company poured energy into updating it.

The core function is sending an instant text message an to one of your friends on Facebook, and that function is the same regardless of whether you do it through the desktop version of the social network, the regular mobile app or standalone messaging app. Only the interface is slightly different based on which of those three versions of Facebook you're using.

Chronology of Facebook Messaging: Before Face book Messenger

In 2008 Facebook first released an instant messaging feature as part of its website and called it Facebook Chat. The feature allowed users to send instant live messages to one friend or to hold a group chat with multiple pals at once. From the start, Facebook Chat was baked into the social network on the desktop or Web, and it worked inside the Web browser, with no separate software required.

Separately, Facebook offered asynchronous "messaging" which was more akin to private email, where the messages appeared on a special page resembling an email inbox.

In 2010, Facebook unified the real-time chat and asynchronous messaging features, so text messages sent via either method could be stored and viewed from the same inbox. Eventually Facebook assigned people actual email addresses, though it's questionable how many users paid any attention to them.

A year later, in 2011, the social network added video calls to its website through a partnership with Skype, though Facebook calling never really seemed to catch on.

That same year (2011) it also rolled out "Facebook Messenger" as a separate mobile messaging app for both iPhone and Android devices. It's basically live chat.

As if those features and apps weren't enough, Facebook released a special messaging app for Windows desktop computers in 2012. Called "Facebook Messenger for Windows," it's basically the same thing as the mobile messenger redesigned for desktop computers running Windows. Yes, it's confusing, but the idea was that some people might want a standalone messenger while they're computing on the desktop, and without this app, they'd have to have the Facebook website open in a tab of their Web browser in order to use Facebook's messaging capability. However, in early 2014 Facebook withdrew support for its desktop messaging app.

In the spring and summer of 2012, the mobile app, Facebook Messenger, got new features and a facelift, which made it speedier on mobile phones and offered more message notifications. New features included the ability to see the location of a message sender and to see when people had viewed a message, as Facebook continued to add bells and whistles try to become a more central part of people's communication habits on mobile phones.

Huge Push for Facebook Messenger

In 2012, Facebook continued its intense promotion and development for live chat and messaging services.

In November 2012, Facebook announced a deal with Mozilla's Firefox to make Facebook Messenger integrated directly into the popular Firefox browser so people can use Facebook's live chat feature on desktop computers without having to go to Facebook.com.

In December 2012, Facebook signaled what would become a major push of its messaging apps into the Android operating system by releasing yet another version of its Messenger app. This version of Facebook Messenger for Android phones marked its sharpest separation from the social network that gave birth to the messaging app: The app does not require an account with Facebook, which makes it easier to add friends to communicate with. Any can download the messenger and use it on an Android phone; it's tied to the phone number rather than to a Facebook user name or email address.

Also in December, Facebook released a revamped version of its Poke feature, turning it into a standalone mobile app that lets people send disappearing messages, making it similar to Snapchat. Poke never really caught on and Facebook eventually stopped promoting it.

Adding Free Mobile Voice Calls

In early 2013, Facebook added free voice calling to its mobile messaging app, first on the iPhone version and then on the Android version, though it did not roll out in all countries for the Android right away.

In April 2013 Facebook released a revamped, Facebook-centric version of the Android mobile operating system, one that makes messaging capabilities even more prominent on the phone. Called "Facebook Home," this software likely will appear only to total Facebook addicts who mainly want a phone for Facebooking. It puts the Facebook Home cover feed (its fancy new name for the news feed )on the opening screen and lock screens of the phone.

In early 2014, Facebook released a version of its mobile Messenger for the Windows Phone 8 operating system, followed by a version for the iPad.

Facebook also announced in 2014 it was withdrawing support for instant messaging from inside its regular mobile networking app and requiring users to download the standalone mobile Messenger app if they wanted to chat while Facebooking.

You can read more about Facebook Messenger from the company's website.