Perhaps the most intriguing announcement to come out of the Facebook Home unveil last Thursday was the social network’s overhaul of messaging, called Chat Heads. While not a phrase you’ll want to be caught saying in public very often, the service’s title is self-explanatory: The faces of the friends you’re communicating with through both text messages and Facebook messaging appear in little movable bubbles that follow you to any app on your smartphone.

On the surface, it sounds like little more than a blatant attempt to boost use of Facebook Message – the service’s email, texting and instant messaging feature – but Chat Heads is actually of one of Home’s most appealing and important features. Not only does it build-in an already viable alternative to the many messaging apps currently on the market, but it also manages to do for Facebook and Android what iMessage does for Apple and iOS. 

Chat Heads Offer Alternative To SMS

In other words, Chat Heads give Facebook a subtle way to nudge users away from SMS and towards its own platform – without seeming like the same evil overlord that changed all its members’ default email address last summer.

This move finally establishes Facebook Message as a serious player in the field of SMS-killers, and the most disruptive one to date. Its success, or failure, will likely reverberate throughout the mobile world.

(See also Facebook Home: A Facebook Phone & A New Facebook Mobile Experience.)

Granted, Chat Heads’ effectiveness is entirely contingent on the adoption rate of Facebook Home. After all, only those who indulge in obsessive Facebook use will really be gung-ho about jumping in the deep end with Home when it debuts on the Google Play store on April 12.

But if Home takes off, Chat Heads will undoubtedly prove to be one of the social network’s most valuable assets. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions are to increase the visibility and longterm use of Facebook Message – eclipsing all other services. Chat Heads could help him succeed.

Messaging Anywhere, Anytime… For Real This Time

Chat Heads’ strength lies in its ease of use. While many messaging services like to promote themselves as “seamless,” allowing for anytime, anywhere messaging, Chat Heads can actually back up that claim. There’s no app to launch or multi-tasking menu bar to flip through. You can place the chat bubble anywhere on your display, or just flick it away when you need the screen real estate for something else.

Taking a page from Apple’s iMessage book, the only thing that differentiates a message in Chat Heads from a SMS message is the color of the text bubble (green for text message, blue for Facebook Message). This functionality also plays into one of Facebook Home’s core strengths – the ubiquitousness of the social network while using the skin. 

(See also Is Apple’s iMessage Killing Texting After All?)

Obviously, having Home on your Android phone means you want to use Facebook as much as possible. But by bundling SMS and Facebook Message into Chat Heads, the social network is playing on your constant exposure to wean you off SMS and and onto Facebook Message. 

Since Chat Heads works works with SMS as well as Facebook Message, there’s really no reason why Home user won’t slide into the habit of replacing texts with Chat Heads. 

SMS Is King, But Facebook Message Is More Flexible

When Facebook rolled up its Chat and Message service into one platform back in 2010, some users were outraged. It stripped away the email-style “get-to-this-when-you-can” feel of Message in favor of Chat’s quick back-and-forth, instant messaging style of communication.

But in making this switch, which most users eventually accepted, Facebook created a middle ground to build a substantial SMS competitor. After two years of growth, Facebook Message is now a platform to be reckoned with, and therein lays Chat Heads’ true power. 

By not having to define itself as a texting alternative, an email-killer or an AOL IM revival service, Facebook Message exists as all three simultaneously, depending on whom you happen to be talking to. You don’t really have to think about whether you need to use an outside app to send an email (a communication means that Facebook Home has completely buried in its interface), or which method may be best for a particular purpose. You can simply use Chat Heads to talk to anyone you know, and interact with them on whatever level you deem necessary. 

Like other alternative messaging services, Facebook Message is free, imposes no character limits and offers easy multimedia sharing. Add its visual attractiveness, ability to handle multiple conversations and flexibility as an email-text-IM hybrid and its easy to see how powerful Chat Heads could be. 

Android-Only Is Its Only Weakness

The most obvious hurdle facing Chat Heads as a true SMS alternative is the fact that iPhone owners won’t be using it anytime soon. That means iMessage will still reign supreme for iDevices, and will keep its own share of the messaging service market intact. Of course, Zuckerberg would love to have an Apple version of Facebook Home, but that ball is in Cupertino’s court. At last week’s Facebook Home launch, Zuckerberg said that putting Home on iOS would require Apple’s cooperation in ways that working with Android did not – although Facebook was in contact with Google over the project. Apple hasn’t commented, but history has not been kind to moves that could wrest ecosystem control away from the Apple. 

That is a bummer. As an iPhone user, I’d love the opportunity to try Facebook Home, if only to check out Chat Heads. In a broader sense, an Apple version of Facebook Home would be a devastating blow to SMS as well as iMessage – all the more reason why Apple likely will never allow it. But even on Android alone, Facebook Home and Chat Heads could soon be the biggest, baddest new player in the messaging wars. 

Lead image by Fredric Paul.