Today Facebook announced three new changes that empower its users with significant real time communications features: Group Chat, a site redesign and Facebook Video Calling powered by Skype.
For Skype it’s a major awareness builder of the power of video calling. As suspected by the inclusion of new Facebook features in Skype 5.5 beta for Windows released last week, Skype is working on a long term partnership with Facebook to integrate Skype technology into the Facebook platform. Facebook chat support in Skype 5.5 beta for Windows followed by today’s Facebook Video Calling announcement is just the beginning to build a real time communications user base beyond the current Skype user base.
From the Facebook viewpoint Facebook Video Calling offers a new real time social networking application built around Facebook’s social networking architecture. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg mentioned that this is the first of many “applications” where Facebook wants to partner with a provider who has a focus on the relevant area of expertise required to offer a quality service while not having to invest in the development of the particular expertise.
- Facebook Chat sessions are being mirrored on the Facebook Contacts tab in Skype 5.5 beta for Windows. Entries in either chat window will show up in the other one.
- There is no “setup” required to launch a video call beyond a one-time initial installation of a plugin (Windows, Mac). On Windows the plugin installs as a Program that can be uninstalled in the usual way. While there are options during the call to change the mic/speakers and webcam, there are no settings for volume or testing the audio/video hardware. And there is no way to see Call Technical Info. It’s a total focus on a simple user experience.
- A Facebook Video Chat is launched by going to a Friend’s page on Facebook and clicking on the Call button.
- If a Friend does not answer a video call you are offered the opportunity to leave a video message. (The first time you will have to approve the use of Adobe’s Flash Video.)
- If a Facebook user does not have a webcam a voice call is fully supported with your Facebook avatar/profile picture replacing the video image.
- There are significant issues with navigation and notification within Facebook:
- While you hear a “ringing” sound when someone calls, it is not obvious where the “answer” window is. On the first call to me I had to minimize three or four other windows to find the “answer” window.
- When a video message is sent (option if there is no answer to the video call), it is not obvious to the recipient that a new message has been received. To find the message one must go to the Message icon on the left side of the Facebook ribbon bar and select the “Friend” who has sent the message.
- When someone started a Facebook chat session with me, the only way I knew that this session had started was to see a new message notification in my Skype 5.5 beta for Windows client. There was no notification on my Facebook site.
- The audio appears to use Skype’s SILK codec according to initial user reports. Also it has been confirmed that the audio and video channel use Skype’s p2p security features. (Chat security level is to be confirmed.)
- Video is 640 x 480; however, there is no frames-per-second information available.
- Picture quality, while certainly acceptable, is not up to the quality seen with Skype High Quality or HD Video. There tend to be reddish hues on faces and, in one case, white background walls had a definite bluish hue. (In the example below, Skype video calls using the same webcam and PC were of much higher color quality.)
Two other points that came out during the press conference:
- This Facebook-Skype partnership had been seeded prior to Tony Bates’ appointment as CEO last October; however, he has certainly endorsed it. Prior to the public announcement of Microsoft’s forthcoming acquisition of Skype, he went with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to inform Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of what would be announced later in the day.
- Both Facebook and Skype see this as an opportunity to build video calling experiences across the Facebook user base prior to launching paid services such as outbound calling to the PSTN and Group Video calling from Facebook.
Bottom line: Skype was readily adopted when it launched due to the relative simplicity of the setup and user experience. While Facebook Video Chat takes full advantage of Skype’s underlying p2p architecture (which places most of the capital equipment cost on the user in the form of requiring a PC), this is the first real experience where a “third party” user interface is built around Skype’s core audio and video communications engine. While one can launch video chat sessions on an ad hoc basis, there are some user interface issues, such as navigation and notification that require refining. (Maybe I’m not sufficiently into Facebook to understand where to find messages as a routine exercise … after all, Facebook is largely about social networking where real time communications plays a supporting role.)
I’ll continue to use Skype for its higher quality video and its auxiliary services such as group conversations and file transfer. However, if someone wants to communicate via Facebook, it’s a reasonable alternative – provided I get appropriate and timely notification of a conversation request.
The real target user for today’s announcement are all those multi-millions of Facebook users who have never experienced using Skype for their real time communications activity; an easy-to-install, ad hoc offering is more appropriate to them. In the end both Skype, as a service, and Facebook will find there relative niches.
Full disclosure: I received one of those Google+ invitations that Google could not fulfil on, so there is no Google+ experience reflected here.