Why Wait For Facebook Messaging? Check Out Heywire Instead

student texting phones

The new Facebook unified messaging system is a work in progress: the sign-up process has some kinks, and promised features like integration with IMAP e-mail accounts are not yet available. Plus, the company’s doing a staged rollout, so unless you’re in tight with Facebook, you probably won’t get it for a couple months yet.

Why wait? A San Francisco startup called Heywire is taking a slightly different approach to solving the same problem of unifying all your communications–including SMS and Facebook Chat–in one place. If you’ve got an iPhone you can start testing the service today.

Heywire launched its free iPhone app in September, and the company’s initial pitch was simple and attractive: exchange free unlimited SMS messages with any mobile phone, anywhere in the world.

This offers immediate benefits for users in the U.S., since AT&T requires iPhone users to buy SMS message plans separately from their data plans, and international messaging can cost $0.40 or more per message.

In the two months since launch, more than 500,000 people have downloaded the app and used it to send more than 15 million messages, says CEO Meredith Flynn-Ripley. Interestingly, 35% of users are accessing Heywire on the iPod Touch, where SMS messaging would otherwise not be available.

But that was just the beginning. Heywire’s plan is to unify SMS and instant messaging in a single app–very similar to what Facebook’s trying to do, minus e-mail. Flynn-Ripley said the company chose to focus on real-time communications because it resonates more with the “connected user of today”–that is, younger users who aren’t familiar with and don’t particularly care about the “store and forward” model of e-mail.

Last week, Heywire added Facebook Chat and Google Gtalk into the iPhone app. The integration isn’t perfect: when you create a text message, you have to select the recipient’s SMS, Facebook, and GTalk identities separately using a “+” symbol. In true unified messaging–like Facebook is building–messages are delivered automatically to whatever platform the recipient is currently on.

But the basic idea makes sense: instead of opening different apps on your iPhone depending on how you want to communicate, you can just use Heywire. 

The company is also issuing invitations to beta-test a Web client that will also work with other IM systems, including AIM, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger, and let you post messages to your Twitter account. These services will be added to the mobile apps next year. Heywire is also beta-testing Android and BlackBerry apps for release next year.

Heywire is owned by MediaFriends, Inc., which has been around since 2005 and initially focused on selling a multiscreen communication service–mainly caller ID on your PC and TV–to telecommunications carriers. The company is funded primarily by Lauder Partners.

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