Why Is Facebook Messing With How We Text?

If you’re on Facebook, you probably text with friends who are also logged in, as you go about scanning the news and pictures in your feed. On a desktop computer or iPad, nothing much about messaging will change for you in the coming weeks. But on mobile, Facebook has a plan you should know about. Messaging is being removed from the main Facebook Mobile app on Apple iPhone and Android phones, and will be handled by a standalone application called Facebook Messenger.

messengerWhen Facebook completes that transition, you’ll need to have the new app installed and open for instant messaging. The company plans to give you some warning, but it has already alerted some European customers that the change is imminent.

For now, when you open Facebook on your phone, you may still see an icon that looks like a square speech bubble at the bottom of your screen; tap it, and you can send and read messages as always. Once you download Messenger, the bubble icon will display a lightning bolt across it. Tapping the icon opens the freestanding app, and that’s where your messaging will take place. You’ll see a blue bar across the top of the screen to “return” to Facebook.

CNET says the strategy is just one more instance of the company’s “annoying” behavior, and Mashable’s headline doesn’t beat around the bush: 11 Reasons Why Pulling Messenger from Facebook Mobile Is a Terrible Idea (#1 – I Don’t Need Another App). Most of the irate reaction across the Web is connected to Facebook’s insistence that you need two apps to do the work that seemed easy with just one.

But Facebook says there are many reasons the freestanding Messenger approach is better, and some commentators agree. (Facebook’s Decision to Spin Off Messenger Is the Smartest, Safest Choice). The company is adding features to Messenger like easy-to-assemble chat groups, free Wi-Fi calling and the ability to message people who aren’t even on Facebook.

Although Messenger is improving, it’s unlikely to win any awards for either simplicity or features, so if you object to Facebook’s request (demand?) to download and start using it, now may be the time to find an alternative, like WhatsApp (just purchased by – guess who? - Facebook) or Text Free. The advantage of texting apps over your phone’s built-in texting is that apps won’t run up charges on your mobile plan.

Related: AARP TEK guide to texting and other real-time communication (including WhatsApp)

In a sense, Facebook’s strategy is the opposite of what your phone and cable company have been doing by bundling cable, phone and Internet. As New York Times tech writer Farhad Manjoo predicts, “Facebook will begin to splinter into many smaller, more narrowly focused services, some of which won’t even carry Facebook’s branding, and may not require a Facebook account to use.” For more about the future of Facebook, read Manjoo’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg.