Skype Could Trump Facebook in Social Networking

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Tom Keating
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Skype Could Trump Facebook in Social Networking

Facebook is the most popular social networking site right now. Putting aside some of my anti-social networking views for a moment (due to tons of LinkedIn, Facebook, Myspace email invites I get), why isn't Skype the #1 social networking application? Just to compare, Skype has over 220 million registered accounts and 9 million concurrent users as of January 2007. Facebook on the other hand claims 39 million active users as of August 2007.

It's tricky to compare their "active" user base numbers, since Skype users may shut down the Skype application or turn off their PC at the end of the day. This reduces their "concurrent" or currently "active" user base. So while it may max out at 9 million users at any given time, it may actually be more like 30 million unique Skype users over the course of a 24-hour period. Facebook on the other hand, since it's a web application may simply count a user as "active" as long as they logon at least once every 30 days.

Point being, both are very popular applications. So this gets back to my original premise as to why Skype hasn't taken off as a premiere social networking application. Let's look at what a social networking site allows you to do. First and foremost, a social networking site helps you find people, lost friends, business associates, etc. Skype too allows you to find people. I use Skype's Find People feature which lets you search by name, email address, language, city, state, country, age range, and gender as seen in this screenshot:

Skype Search for Users

Skype's find feature is a bit limited however. You can't search on people's interest for example. Skype could easily transform it's website into a social networking site leveraging its database of millions of users. dating, interest groups, etc. can browse by category and 1-click initiate a Skype call or conference with or without video. Skype is about communicating with friends, family, industry colleagues. Many use it as their primary communications application. But while it is strong in voice and IM, it has virtually no web functionality (or Web 2.0 if you prefer). So combine Skype (communications) with social networking and you get social  networking communications. Bit wordy and networking and communications are redundant. Maybe just social communications.

Ironically, I had this post drafted for a few weeks, but got tied up with traveling to IT Expo, so never finished it and today I just came across news that Facebook is adding instant messaging functionality. So essentially Facebook is adding one of of Skype's core features (IM) - can a Facebook VoIP client be far behind? It seems that a new cool Facebook app comes out daily, though a web-based VoIP app is much more complex. Then again, Adobe has not-so-secretly been developing VoIP functionality which will run in Flash, which has a high penetration install-rate on both Windows and Macs, so it is cross-platform. So it wouldn't be too hard to embed a VoIP application on a Facebook page simply using Flash.

It certainly would be fascinating to see a Web 2.0 app like Facebook cross-over into becoming a (web-based) VoIP client application -- a traditional desktop application. Now with Facebook adding IM communications, Skype needs to step up and offer something more than just IM, voice, and video. Skype needs to get into the social networking game.

It shouldn't be that hard for them to add social networking to their website. They already capture some demographic information. Not to mention, one of the coolest features of social networking apps is the ability to view "connections" or links between people, i.e. see the buddy/contact list of your buddies. Skype could even display a graph depicting all of these "connections" simply by cross referencing your buddy list against the buddies within each of your buddies (level 1), and then the buddies within those buddies (level 2), and so on and so forth. Skype can leverage their "fat" desktop client for some features, but also extend much of the social networking functionality to the Web.

Just as an aside, I'm aware of at least two solutions that leverage Flash to be able to embed VoIP onto a web page. First, at Internet Telephony Conference & Expo, I met with Ming Yong from VoiceRoute who demo'ed Druid Live, a click-to-call Flash-based VoIP application platform. Using a browser both for the originating (outbound call) and terminating/receiving (inbound call) Ming demonstrated a VoIP call between the two browsers. No software download - all Flash.

I recently came across a company called Ribbit that built an application in Flex and which runs on the Flash Player, and therefore doesn't requires a download and supports full telephone capabilities. According to the website, "The RibbitPhone Component will give Rich internet application developers the ability to make and receive calls, record/send and receive voicemail, as well as add and manage contacts."

A cool VoIP application utilizing Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) was created simulating the Apple iPhone UI called the AIR iPhone. Using the AIR iPhone combined with the RibbitPhone component you can make VoIP calls using the simulated iPhone. Of course, the app won't run on the real iPhone just yet since Adobe AIR doesn't run on any mobile devices, including the iPhone. However Intel and Adobe have promised to get Adobe AIR running on mobile phones with Intel's new low-power x86 mobile chips. So in theory, a 100% VoIP softphone client running on the iPhone is quite possible.

Anyway, check out the cool Adobe AIR iPhone video:

Facebook has now entered Skype's space with the addition of IM. VoIP might not be that far behind. Skype needs to grow beyond offering simple avatars and ringtones and get in the social networking game to compete. In fact, this also holds true for MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. This probably explains why Microsoft is interested in buying Facebook. VoIP applications can no longer be silo applications or they will lose.

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