Facebook's Messenger Lite lights up old Android phones

The social network's quest to connect the developing world continues with a pared-back version of its messaging app.

Messenger Lite can send pictures and videos, but can't yet make voice calls.

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Facebook has a tiny, speedy new messaging app designed for owners of older Android phones.

Facebook Messenger Lite, announced Monday, takes up a much smaller amount of a phone's storage -- just 10 megabytes -- than the full-fat app that most users have installed on their phones, and it has been pared back so that it runs peppily over slower-than-average networks. It is the companion app to Facebook Lite, a stripped-down version of the social network, also for old Android phones, launched in 2015.

The app's launch is one cog in the machinery of Facebook's plan to make the social network and the internet as a whole more accessible to people in the developing world. One of Facebook's stated aims is to bring the next 3 billion people online and it has a number of initiatives to that end, including Internet.org, Free Basics and its Lite apps.

Unlike Free Basics and Internet.org, which are wide-ranging internet accessibility projects with multiple partners, Messenger Lite is focused purely on giving Android phone owners the very basics of Facebook's popular messaging service.

The key to scaling down Messenger to run on older Android phones was to prioritize features that people were using most, such as sending text, links and photos, said Stan Chudnovsky, head of Facebook Messenger, in an interview. "No messaging service today would be really robust if you couldn't send pictures and videos," he said.

Voice calls are coming

One thing Messenger Lite won't be able to do is make voice calls, in this first version at least. As a huge growth area for Facebook -- 300 million people use Messenger for voice calling -- it is a feature Chudnovsky is "definitely" looking at adding eventually. "People want to use the same kind of services they use everywhere else, but it definitely requires different types of tech."

Messenger Lite has been designed to work on Android devices from as far back as 2009, running the Gingerbread version of Google's phone software that was prevalent around that time. Chudnovsky said that he's "very optimistic" that network infrastructure in developing countries will catch up with the rest of the world quickly and that Facebook is committed to supporting Messenger Lite far into the future to ensure it can keep running on older phones. "Even once we have connectivity, we're still going to have to deal with cheap devices," he said.

Facebook also owns messaging service WhatsApp, which has historically been popular in the developing world, but that popularity hasn't affected the decision to reconfigure Messenger for the same market, Chudnovsky said. "WhatsApp is awesome and we love that people use it all the time, but it doesn't mean that on Messenger we shouldn't try to allow anyone [who wants] to use it to efficiently be able to do it," he said.

Messenger Lite will be available initially to people in Kenya, Tunisia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Venezuela, and is set to come to other countries later.

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