Ever since I joined Gmail, my favorite instant messaging platform has been Google Talk—or more recently, Hangouts. I remember the excitement of using a chat client that wasn’t tied to a computer and followed me wherever I logged in, much like Gmail itself. There was no worry of bloated software installed on my PC or another set of notifications asking me to update. But, the web has come a long way since 2005, and Talk certainly wasn’t the last chat to live in the browser.
While I continue to use Hangouts regularly, many of my friends don’t. Facebook Messenger is an IM platform natively backed by one of the largest and most personalized social networks available. Though until recently it’s only been a small feature within Facebook proper, it’s graduated to become a serious competitor to Hangouts, Skype, iMessage, and other big players. With the recent introduction of Messenger.com, you can now use it outside of the browser like any other application and turn off chat inside Facebook.com.
Facebook Chat has already proven to be a widely used choice for IM. Perhaps second in popularity only to SMS, it’s backed by over a billion monthly active Facebook users, and chances are you’ve already friended most of the people you talk to—no further juggling of email address or phone numbers required. Messenger was also the 5th most downloaded app for iOS and Android at the end of 2014. 99% of my friends are on Facebook, making it the perfect platform for reaching out to old friends or acquaintances whose information may not be up-to-date in my address book. And while I understand this may be somewhat unique to my own Facebook experience as a 20-something in the US, there’s clearly a large enough user base for Facebook Messenger to be a relevant option. On top of this, Facebook Chat maintains the advantages of living in the browser, much like Google Talk in its early days: continuous updatability, portability, and availability.
But, one of my biggest pet peeves with Facebook Chat has been the requirement to use it as part of Facebook.com, at least on the desktop. While those corner-window chat boxes make sense for users with nothing better to do than browse their Facebook stream all day (I may be guilty of this from time to time, myself), it’s frustrating to cram long conversations or large group-chats into that space, and there’s no way to pop it out into its own window. (Even Gmail Chat had this from day one.) Often, I’d keep facebook.com/messages open in a pinned tab in Chrome, but since it was still part of the Facebook site, notifications and the activity feed would pull me back to my news feed one way or another. Facebook Chat feels like a clunky, unpolished feature of Facebook; now it’s time for it to grow up.
That’s where Facebook Messenger comes in. After Facebook separated Messenger from the core mobile app, they’ve finally begun the process on web as well, and it makes a great deal of sense for them to do this. Aside from basic consistency between mobile and web, this aligns Messenger to better compete against other major chat platforms such as Hangouts and iMessage, where it already has somewhat of an advantage due to its platform-independency. Furthermore, Facebook recently released Facebook at Work, and a standalone Messenger app could eventually compete with enterprise chat apps such as HipChat and Slack. Perhaps the biggest reason to make this move is in the spirit of transforming Messenger into a platform, as was their push during their most recent F8 Conference. As a platform, Messenger now allows developers to create apps that integrate with Messenger. It’s perhaps too early to tell which if any of these will catch on, but they could open up important functionality to third parties, making it an even stronger standalone competitor to other IM services.
For end-users, Messenger.com brought a polished and much-needed improvement to Facebook Chat on the web. Aside from a cleaner interface that’s thematically more consistent with its mobile counterpart, the new Messenger lives in it’s own browser tab with minimal distraction. Suddenly, it feels more like a standalone app than a widget, and while it doesn’t have all the same features of the mobile app, it has more than Facebook Chat and plenty of room to grow.
Using Messenger as a Desktop App
You can take it a step further. Many native desktop apps are built from web technologies these days, and it’s easy to transform the new Messenger into one that runs in its own window. Here’s how:
If you’re on Windows, Chrome makes it quite easy to make any webpage an app living in your taskbar. In Chrome, go to messenger.com and choose “More tools” > “Create application shortcuts…” from the browser menu. This will give you the option to add Messenger to your desktop and pin it to your taskbar.
For Mac users, this feature is disappointingly missing from Chrome, but there are a few unofficial native wrappers you can download and install. Messenger for Mac and Goofy are a couple, and they’re pretty similar. If you have notifications enabled in Messenger, you’ll receive them natively through OS X like any other app.
Hopefully this tip will provide a better experience when chatting on the Facebook network, and it will be interesting to see what improvements and features Facebook brings to Messenger on the web. Surely it will reach feature parity with the mobile apps, and I’d like to see Facebook implement the new push notification features in Chrome 42 that would send me chat notifications in Chrome even when I don’t have Messenger open. There’s a lot that’s unknown at this point: will WhatsApp will find a place within the Messenger ecosystem or remain separate? Will we be able to install apps into Messenger.com like we can now on mobile? What if we could use Messenger.com to send SMS’s from our phones? Either way, I have a feeling this is the start of something big for Messenger as a desktop IM application, and I’m excited to see how it grows.