If you’ve ever read praise for Facebook products on The Verge, it won’t have come from me. I’m baffled by the design of the company’s website, aggravated by the pushy data-thirsty ways of its apps, and unimpressed by the contrived niceness of its founder and boss. In short: Vlad Savov, not a Facebook fan. But, for the first time, I am a fan of a particular offshoot of Facebook and that’s the Messenger Lite chat application that recently rolled out to Android phones in the US, UK, Canada, and Ireland. It’s good. Shockingly good.
Internet messaging is one of those things that has been undergoing reinvention pretty much since the internet began. Last week we were reminded of the existence of AIM just long enough to reminisce about our youthful indiscretions on AOL’s messenger before its overdue termination in December. Before Facebook owned the messenger.com domain, it belonged to Microsoft, whose MSN Messenger was once a rival to AIM. There have been various reasons for why every popular messaging platform has eventually waned in popularity, but top of my list of reasons has always been the bloatification of a simple thing into an unnecessarily convoluted mess.
Facebook Messenger, the regular variety, is definitely one of those guilty parties that is carrying too much weight for most people to like and enjoy. App extensions and a bot store, Stories, customizable chat colors, animated and oversized emoji, scannable profile codes … you can even order an Uber and play chess while you wait, all without leaving Messenger. In grand business strategic terms, this is a logical move for Facebook as it competes with every other tech company to be the one dominating your attention on the omnipresent phone in your hand. But in terms of customer service, it’s a pile of hot mismatched garbage.
I forced myself to use Messenger recently, because, well, with most internet-connected humans being on Facebook, it was a convenient way to interact with people. And unlike Facebook’s alternative solution, WhatsApp, I can switch between devices and browsers with ease, instead of being dependent on one particular phone. But Facebook Messenger is so horribly unintuitive, everything inside it feels designed to divert me from the simple act of reaching people, everything is meant to keep me busy messaging. On Android, I still find it easier to silence Messenger notifications from the system settings than within the app itself. Thankfully, before I lost my patience entirely, Messenger Lite was made available in my region and it was like an angel descended from the heavens and fixed everything.
Facebook Messenger Lite is proof positive that we’ve overthought and over-engineered the modern messaging app. It’s embarrassingly simple, though the embarrassment should be shared out among Facebook’s full-fat Messenger, Google’s constantly failing efforts to make a non-terrible messaging app, and confused alternatives like Skype. In FB Messenger Lite, you get three columns: one for your recent chats, one for your contacts, and a third with all the available settings. Themes? Wallpapers? Any other distractions? Nope.
With Messenger Lite, I still have a full suite of emoji at my disposal, I still get delivery and read receipts, and I can still like and reply to a message directly from the Android notification. The app allows me to record and send voice messages, capture and share photos, set up group chats, and even make phone calls within it. What more does anyone need from a messaging app?
When confronted with woefully bloated software like Facebook’s regular Messenger (or even Facebook’s desktop website), I’m overcome by the sorrow of knowing there are probably really talented designers behind that software. These people are forced into creating things they themselves don’t like, simply because of business priorities that don’t align with the best possible user experience. But Messenger Lite is the Facebook designers’ revenge. Under the laudable pretext of serving markets with lower mobile bandwidth, they have mercilessly trimmed away all the excess and banality, bringing a slick, minimalist, lightning-fast messenger into existence.
Messenger Lite is the messaging app not just for people on a limited data budget, but also for those with limited patience for self-indulgent mobile apps. It just gets the job done without ceremony. In getting back to basics, Facebook has finally done something to impress me. It’s also given Android users like me a rare advantage over our iOS compatriots, as Messenger Lite is still not available for the iPhone. The intriguing thing is that once (if?) it rolls out on the iPhone, Facebook’s lighter and sleeker Messenger might provide the best competition that iMessage has yet encountered to its stranglehold over iOS messaging.