Why Facebook Will Launch Mobile Chat

What will be the next big feature that Facebook introduces in terms of mobile applications? It’s not hard to come up with an answer to that question; it’s obvious that the Palo Alto, Calif.-based social networking company will launch one-to-many “chat” as part of its mobile suite. Earlier this week in an interview, Slide CEO Max Levchin pointed out what Facebook has done well is become the “address book” of the web. By doing so, it can easily become the communication center for all sorts of services. Instant messaging is only a part of that communication.

Facebook launched an “instant messaging” app for chatting on its web platform a few years ago, and it is now is one of the largest IM networks in the world. It’s still not available on many mobile handsets, even though Facebook has 200 million mobile users and has made mobile its top priority.(iPhone App currently allows you to IM your Facebook friends, one at a time.)

Mobile IM/chat is definitely hot. Earlier this year, the Canadian startup Kik launched a real-time, cross-platform chat app, has signed up over a million users and is adding about 200,000 more a day. (The company is also getting some shellacking for harvesting emails to produce that growth.) Kik is one of the many startups seeing demand for text messaging and chat-style services on mobiles.

As we’ve seen in the past, Facebook is pretty good at paying attention to hot new trends, then incorporating them into their core offering. When Twitter became hot, it rolled out Twitter-like features. When Foursquare became the bomb, the company started to work on its location strategy. Now that Kik and other mobile IP-chat services are hot, it won’t be long before Facebook drops it into its next big mobile app upgrade. Of course, a one-to-many mobile IM/chat app is necessary if a Facebook-based phone is to become a reality.

Interestingly, if Facebook launches mobile IM/chat, it’s going to eat into one of the big money generators for carriers: SMS. The free IM/chat via an always-on mobile app is going to slowly start eliminating the need for using the for-pay (and not so cheap) SMS and MMS services. Thanks to mobile notifications, it’s becoming hard to distinguish between an SMS and an IM-based notification. Mobile messaging (which includes SMS, MMS, email and IM), according to research firm Strategy Analytics, is going to grow at a combined annual rate of 2.7 percent to $139.2 billion in 2015. Of that total, nearly 74 percent of the revenues are going to come from SMS and about 19 percent from email, while MMS will account for 5 percent of the revenues.

I’m pretty confident that Facebook is going to roll out some kind of one-to-many mobile IM/chat on its apps within months. The only question is which platform will first get it — Android (s goog) or Apple’s (s aapl) iOS.

Update: I wanted to offer some clarifications. The iPhone app has IM, which allows you to IM one friend at a time. What I am talking about is a chat-type scenario, where you can conduct a chat-style conversation. Typically one would use Group SMS. Secondly, I am talking about chat within Facebook apps. I know, IM capability is available on multiple other apps.

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