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Facebook's Messenger app: Practical is the new sexy

The app's fundamental change is a philosophy christened "mobile-to-mobile," which is meant to signify that people using Messenger are immediately available to each other.

The conversation view in Facebook's new Messenger app for Android.

With the Tuesday release of a new Messenger application, Facebook is making a much stronger case to be your go-to smartphone app for instantly getting ahold of friends and address book contacts.

The new Facebook Messenger app constitutes a dramatic renovation over versions past and introduces enhancements in speed, function, and design. The app, available to a limited audience on Android to start, attempts to again make compelling a growing stale experience that simply mirrored the messaging experience inside Facebook's flagship mobile application.

Messenger's fundamental change is something Facebook calls "mobile-to-mobile," an apt catchphrase meant to signify that people using the app are immediately available to each other on their smartphones.

The philosophy is embodied in how Facebook Messenger displays contacts, delivers messages, processes notifications, and allows people to send over-the-top messages in lieu of text messages to their smartphone contacts who are not already their Facebook friends.

Contacts that also use Messenger, for instance, are denoted by a little blue lightning bolt badge. Everyone else gets a Facebook badge. And if a Messenger user doesn't have push notifications enabled than that person won't get the lightning bolt badge because they may not be able to be reached right away.

Facebook Messenger is all about visual cues. Lightning bolt badges, for instance, signify that a contact is also using the Messenger app and, therefore, likely to be reached instantly. Facebook

The idea is to give people visual cues as to which of their contacts will be potentially quicker to reach via Facebook message as opposed to say text, e-mail, Twitter direct message, or any other competing mobile messaging app.

"Other people didn't know who had Messenger and who didn't," Peter Martinazzi, product manager on the update, told CNET. With the new badges, however, Martinazzi said that he can see that his colleague Luke, for instance, is using Messenger. "That's really important if I'm going to trust this channel as the way to reach Luke in an emergency."

Messenger is also said to be much swifter in delivering updates, a technological improvement that should support badges as markers of accessibility and make the app feel significantly faster to users. Facebook declined to quantify just how much faster the new Messenger is over older versions, but Martinazzi said that the app loads faster and should feel snappier in overall performance.

"Every millisecond matters when you're messaging in a mobile-to-mobile world," he said.

In terms of functional improvements, Messenger now lets people Facebook message their address book contacts who they have not friended on the social network. The update means that, so long as you have a phone number, you can use start pinging a person who is also on Facebook but is not necessarily a person you want to formally befriend. Facebook simply matches a member's stored phone number to make the Messenger connection.

The social network has even designed a new logo and color scheme -- yes, there's a new kind of Facebook blue -- meant to distinguish the single-purpose Messenger from the more feature-rich Facebook app. The application's design is also linked to distinct conventions and user interface patterns on both Android and iPhone, which should make new elements immediately familiar to people on either operating system.

Altogether, the updates are meant to make Facebook Messenger a more practical rival to rising mobile messaging competitors such as WhatsApp, which has stolen a bit of the social network's thunder with youngsters and has amassed an audience of 300 million active users.

Facebook Messenger for Android is being released Tuesday to a limited audience. The company said it will make Messenger available to all members on Android and iPhone in the coming weeks.