Facebook opens up Messenger app to non-Facebook users

Facebook (s fb) is allowing non-facebook users to use its Messenger app, marking the first time it’s not requiring a Facebook account for one of its apps. Starting with the Messenger for Android app, users will be able to sign-up with just their phone number to send and exchange messages.

It sounds like Facebook will first make this available to Android (s goog) users first in India, Australia, Indonesia, Venezuela, and South Africa before it goes fully international. Facebook for iOS (s aapl) will also soon get the same open access but the exact timing isn’t being announced.

The move will help Facebook appeal to a wider audience of users, many of whom may not be ready to become Facebook users. It also helps position Messenger as a better competitor to SMS, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and other third-party messaging services like WhatsApp, which only requires a phone number to sign up. Coincidentally, Facebook was rumored to be looking at acquiring WhatsApp, though it appears the two aren’t negotiating. 

Facebook may be looking at this as a way to go after users who have been attracted to RIM’s BBM (s rimm) or WhatsApp. Or it could be an opportunity to introduce the Facebook brand to new users and gradually pull them into a regular account. Facebook Messenger for Android has more than 50 million downloads but that still puts it behind WhatsApp, who just passed 100 million Android downloads.

I think it’s smart for Facebook to keep innovating on messaging. In Asia, messaging services like KakaoTalk, Line and Weixin are building huge communities of users, who all use those apps more like social networking services. That is where Facebook could eventually see a lot of competition: through a mobile-first social app that uses messaging as a starting point. For these Asian competitors, the more they grow, the more they can go head-to-head with Facebook, which doesn’t have a great history in mobile.