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Facebook's redesigned Messenger takes aim at WhatsApp, Snapchat

Facebook is hoping to gain a stronger foothold in the competitive mobile messaging space with an updated version of its Messenger app, which now lets people message each other even if they aren't Facebook friends.

On Wednesday the company announced an update to its standalone Messenger app, which lets users send text messages to each other, but without the usual other content on Facebook like the news feed and timeline profiles.

The updated app was available previously in a testing mode to a small number of users on Android-based devices, but now is available more widely to people on both Android and iOS.

Before the update, the app let users send messages just to their Facebook friends. Now it lets people send messages to anyone with a Facebook account -- even if they're not friends -- as long as the sender knows the person's phone number. The message appears in the recipient's Messenger app or in the person's Facebook messages folder.

By using Facebook's network to send the message, it saves the sender an SMS charge, similar to other mobile-to-mobile messaging services like WhatsApp, Snapchat and WeChat, which have become popular among teenagers and young adults.

Messenger's new feature may allow Facebook to better compete against those services. Facebook is losing some of its younger teenage users on a daily basis, the company reported during its last earnings call.

The new Messenger app is also designed to be faster, by letting users see which of their Facebook friends are on Messenger. An icon will appear next to the names of people who have downloaded Messenger, which means that those users will be notified instantly upon the message's delivery, Facebook said.

The app was also given a new streamlined look to be easier to get around, by letting users swipe to see recent conversations. Messenger started as a desktop chat client, but when it comes to messaging on mobile, "people want something faster and lighter weight," Facebook said.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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