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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

In Some Places, Facebook Opens Message Service to the Facebookless

Facebook is hoping to grab more users by letting people in some countries sign up for its messaging service with just a phone number - no Facebook account required.

The company said on Tuesday that it would begin allowing owners of Android phones in India, Indonesia, Venezuela, Australia and South Africa to sign up for its Messenger app with their phone number. When Android users in those countries download the app, they will be presented with the option of logging in with a phone number or connecting with a Facebook account. After choosing the phone number option, users just have to enter their first and last name, and the phone sends a text message to Facebook for verification.

Later, the company will introduce the phone-number sign-up option to other countries, including the United States, Facebook said.

Peter Deng, a product director at Facebook who oversees the Messenger app, said in an intervi ew that the company's primary goal was to make it easier for people to sign up for its messaging service and start communicating. The Messenger app will not include ads, but an easier sign-up could eventually entice non-Facebook users to sign up for an account so they can use the messaging service elsewhere, like on Facebook.com or in the company's mobile apps, where ads do appear.

Mr. Deng said messaging was “ripe for innovation” because it had been held back by old technology created by phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

“It's limited to 160 characters, and it's not at all rich in its expression,” he said in an interview. “People want to connect deeply with each other, and they don't want to be constrained by various technical boundaries and decisions made 20 years ago.”

Facebook's Messenger app, available for iPhones, Android smartphones and BlackBerrys, has generally been well received. In Apple's App Store, for instance, it has about 40, 000 five-star user reviews.

Mr. Deng declined to say how many Facebook messages were being sent daily, a sign that the number may not be worth bragging about yet. In the App Store, the Messenger app is currently No. 94 in Apple's list of most downloaded free apps. On the other hand, WhatsApp, a text-messaging app that costs $1, is ranked No. 2 in Apple's list of most downloaded paid apps. WhatsApp says its users send 10 billion messages a day.

For technology businesses, the texting market is a juicy target. Traditional text messaging, the kind where you pay to send messages over the phone network, is in decline in many parts of the world, because many people are switching to Internet-powered messaging services like Facebook, WhatsApp or Apple's iMessage.