Facebook has revamped its popular chat feature by adding free video calling that can be launched inside the social network’s website. What was most striking about the launch event, held in Palo Alto, was how much CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to distance his company from those seeking to slow its momentum, Google in particular.
The video-calling service is provided in partnership with Skype, which recently agreed to be sold to Microsoft, a Facebook partner and investor. Skype already provides Internet phone and video services, but users need to install a sizable program, and can only make video calls to other Skype members. With the new service, Facebook members can click on a “call” button on a friend’s profile page or in a chat window and connect, after installing a small software plug-in.
“It’s a total natural for them,” says Greg Sterling, founding principal of market research company Sterling Market Intelligence. “A lot of people will use it.”
At the same time, the launch, which included a new group text chat feature and an easy-to-access chat buddy list, appears to expose Facebook’s increasing trepidation about Google. Last week, the search giant introduced a preliminary version of its Google+ social network. The new service, yet to be rolled out widely, has garnered considerable positive reaction from early users, though it remains to be seen whether it will take off once it’s released more widely. “Now it really looks like Facebook is nervous about Google,” says Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of the website Search Engine Land.
Among Google+’s features, in particular, is a group video chat service called Hangouts. Facebook’s Skype service is strictly one-to-one calling, which Skype CEO Tony Bates implied make up the vast majority of video calls. But group video calls are also something Skype charges money for, and Zuckerberg brushed away questions on when group video chat might come to Facebook.
One-to-one video calls fit more neatly with Facebook’s emphasis on providing ways for people to connect with real-world friends. Other social services such as Twitter and Google+, allow for less personal relationships. “Google’s design approach emphasizes loose connections, while Facebook emphasizes closer, more intimate connections,” says Ray Valdes, a research director with Gartner Research.
For his part, Zuckerberg portrayed the Skype video calling feature as a harbinger of a new era in social networking. The next five years, he contends, will go beyond the sheer numbers of people connecting on social networks. Indeed, he downplayed user counts, despite the fact that he said Facebook now has 750 million active users, the first time the company has officially announced a new active-user count since last year, when it said there were more than 500 million.
Instead, Zuckerberg said, the key point going forward will be providing ultimately billions of social network users more to do on those networks. “The driving narrative for the next five years is what cool stuff you’re going to be able to build, what apps you can build, now that you have this infrastructure in place,” he said.
In a jab at Google, Zuckerberg also positioned Facebook as the friendlier platform for outside software developers. “We want to leave apps to developers who are best in class,” he said. “That’s in contrast to other Internet companies out there who try to do everything themselves.”
In particular, Zuckerberg said sharing of news, photos, and videos is exploding, reaching some four billion items a day. The growth, he says, is exponential, similar to Moore’s Law, which describes a doubling of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit every 18 months. “People are sharing twice as much today as a year ago,” he said. He expects that trend to continue for years to come.
Zuckerberg also suggested that Facebook is years ahead of other companies looking to create social networks of various kinds. Asked what he thinks of Google+’s Circles features, which allows people to drop their various kinds of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances into specific buckets with which they can then share specific posts or other material, Zuckerberg declined to talk about Google. But in an implicit dismissal of Circles, he noted that Facebook’s research indicated that “people don’t want to take a lot of time to add people to groups.”
The day’s announcements, coupled with the thinly veiled references to Google, indicated to several observers at the event that Facebook views Google as a serious competitor. “The polarization between Google and Facebook continues to gain strength,” says Gartner’s Valdes.