Mike Isaac

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After Lots of iOS Attention, Facebook Gives a Little Love to Its Android Apps

The masses swooned over Facebook’s much-needed update to its iOS applications last month. (Just in time, too, for the iPhone 5 launch.) One month later, Facebook is giving more attention to the Googley crowd.

Facebook will update its main Android app as well as Facebook Messenger for Android, the company announced Thursday, with an extra emphasis on messages and design in both app updates.

In the main Android app, the ability to message your friends is pushed to the forefront, as Facebook has added a new Messenger button in the upper-right-hand corner of the News Feed, for faster access to see who is available for chatting from within the app. A quick swipe to the left inside of the app again accomplishes much the same thing. Facebook touts that the update will make the app more reliable and secure, with fewer frustrating reboots and bugs.

The main difference, however, is the redesigned interface for conversations. It basically apes Apple’s iOS design for text message conversations. Facebook’s claim is that it’s meant to make it easier for you to tell who’s saying what, as currently all conversation within Messenger is in one News Feed-like stream. Aesthetically, the update makes sense.

But here’s the not-so-subtle subtext: Facebook really, really wants you to use its Messenger products to communicate.

The company has made no bones about the fact that it wants its user base to make the leap from traditional email, SMS and chat services over to Messenger, which essentially rolls the three methods of communication into one. Both friends online at once? Facebook makes Messenger into a live chat session. Not there, but want to send a message? Use it as an SMS-like text to a friend. And with the addition of the @facebook.com extension in 2010, non-Messenger users can email your Messenger account from their own existing email addresses.

The idea, it seems, is to eventually convince users that they don’t need to navigate between multiple platforms — email, SMS, chat clients — to carry out their daily communications among friends and family. That’s what Facebook’s platform is for. And, obviously, the more time people spend inside of Facebook’s platform across all devices — Android, iOS and the Web — the better. Making Messenger a better tool to do that across every device — especially the highly popular Android platform — can only expedite that process.

It got a little weird, however, when Facebook tried to speed that up a few months ago by switching users’ Facebook-assigned email addresses to the default option. While Facebook tried to play it as catering to users’ privacy options, it came off as an ugly reminder that yes, Facebook has all of your personal data, and can decide what it wants to do with it when it wants to.

Anyway, Facebook is obviously trying to learn from that freak-out, introducing the changes to Messenger over time. What’s more, on a handful of the Android phones on which Messenger sees the most use, Facebook lets you SMS-text your contacts directly from the Messenger application, so — let’s say it all together now — you never have to leave Facebook to stay in touch with your friends. How novel.

As an aside, Facebook assures me that it plans to roll out the feature to as many Android devices as it can in the coming months. It just makes sense, in my opinion, to first target those phones which see the most Messenger use.

Facebook probably shouldn’t dilly-dally too much in pushing Messenger hard, however. The company has a plethora of proprietary mobile messaging services to compete with: Apple’s iMessage, BlackBerry’s BBM, Google’s unified Talk, Chat and message features. The more users grow accustomed to a particular method of communication, the harder it will be to break them of the habit and onboard them to Facebook’s system.

In any case, expect the updated Facebook applications to hit the Google Play store beginning Thursday.

Oh, and by the by, Facebook didn’t give Android its day in the sun alone on Thursday; the company’s iOS apps also received an update, timed with the release of iOS 6 to the public.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google