Facebook VoIP?

Tom Keating : VoIP & Gadgets Blog
Tom Keating
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Facebook VoIP?

VoIP on Facebook hasn't gotten much attention, partly because Facebook doesn't natively support it. Sure there are paid third-party apps like the $1.99 Facebook Messenger app for the iPhone (renamed to Fone). However, it's only for the iPhone and doesn't work on PCs. Facebook has become the central place to interact with friends and family, share photos, IM, post comments, so why hasn't Facebook added VoIP support?

Yes Facebook lets you communicate via IM, but why not VoIP? Facebook leverages XMPP (Jingle) for chat, as does Google Talk for both IM and VoIP. So the technology is there to handle VoIP. In fact, you can use your preferred XMPP client, such as Trillian, to use Facebook for Chat. If Facebook opened up their network to XMPP federation, that would truly be the death knell for phone numbers! The average Facebook user has more contacts in Facebook than contacts in their mobile phone address book. Further, if you look at Skype, the very successful bellwether VoIP app, its users also have less contacts than Facebook users. Facebook offering VoIP to it's multi-million userbase would be an instant overnight sensation.

Of course, making a VoIP call using Facebook via a browser isn't your typical user experience. Most users expect a standalone application like Skype. However, Google's Gmail has had integrated VoIP calling since August of 2010. If Google is going VoIP over a browser, then surely they will increase market awareness of this capability. Not to mention the various browser VoIP apps based on Adobe Flash. Also, users are starting to use mobile versions of Facebook even more than PC/Mac browser-based versions. (Though desktop usage of Facebook still leads mobile usage.) So Facebook could have a nice UI that allows you to make free VoIP calls over your mobile phones WiFi or 3G connection simply by selecting one of your Facebook contacts. I should note that a Facebook VoIP button was reportedly seen in the wild back in January, but so far nothing has come of it.

Apple is getting serious about VoIP and video calling. If Facebook doesn't move now they can lose a huge opportunity. Apple's FaceTime application maps email addresses directly to a Facetime user, essentially acting as a large SIP registrar or ENUM registry if you will. You can make VoIP/video calls from your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad simply by "FaceTiming" your contact. No phone numbers to memorize, no special software to install. The firmware for these devices support FaceTime so its pretty seamless. They even launched Facetime for Mac late last year so you can also FaceTime from your Mac. Apple has a large, loyal fan base, but Facebook dwarfs even Mighty Apple.

I should add that Vonage launched their Vonage Mobile application for Facebook back in 2010. Their service allows users to make free mobile calls to all of their Facebook friends who have the app as well.

Look at all these 3rd party VoIP apps for Facebook. The big winner is FriendCaller with 66,251 monthly users. The others aren't even close, except for Alec Saunder's Calliflower conferencing / collaboration service with 1,509:

Calliflower is the World's Easiest Way to Meet Online. Includes Conference Calls, Document Sharing and more.
1,509 monthly active users
by iCall, Inc.
Make free phone calls from within your web browser on facebook.
77 monthly active users
by Google Inc.
No reviews
Google Talk is a free Windows and web-based application for instant messaging and voice over internet protocol (VoIP), offered by Google Inc.
63 monthly active users
by C2Call GmbH
The ultimate facebook VoIP WebPhone! Talk to all your friends for FREE through FriendCaller straight from your facebook account.
66,251 monthly active users

by Triana Group
Skype is a free VoIP service that will bring you closer together to your friends. You can make calls from right inside Facebook -- join now and see who's online!
38,589 monthly active users  
by B@ktun Software
Hello – Hello! Or should we say LO-LO!
Is a peer-to-peer (p2p) voip platform to communicate through a voice call by simply pointing and clicking on the “call” links next to your newsfeed entries below each one of your contact’s Facebook profile.
282 monthly active users
by Saloob, Inc
Flashphone is the world's first VOIP Flashphone.
10 monthly active users
by Rechargespot Limited | Supreme Option Technologies
No reviews
Rechargespot is a community where mobile phone users can earn FREE recharge cards, make FREE VOIP calls, send FREE SMS and do fun stuff.
14 monthly active users
No reviews
This application shows within your profile if you have a SIP device currently logged into the VoIP User server and are available to take calls. The application page also shows a Google Map with your current location based on our IP geo-targetting.
11 monthly active users 

FriendCaller has a decent userbase, but I just tested it and it's still a bit of a kludge to make a VoIP call to a Facebook friend. It's not a seamless 1-click experience. In any event, as seen above, third-parties are enabling VoIP for Facebook, while Facebook stays eerily quiet.

Surely, someone would have asked Mark Zuckerberg by now about VoIP for Facebook. The closest I found was a TechCrunch interview about a rumored Facebook "phone". Everyone was abuzz about the potential for a Facebook phone. In the interview, Mark said:
Our whole strategy is not to build any specific device or integration or anything like that. Because we’re not trying to compete with Apple or the Droid or any other hardware manufacturer for that matter.

Our strategy is very horizontal. We’re trying to build a social layer for everything. Basically we’re trying to make it so that every app everywhere can be social whether it’s on the web, or mobile, or other devices. So inherently our whole approach has to be a breadth-first approach rather than a depth-first one. And we work on all of these different things at the same time, so I’m sure whatever leak you got was probably accurate for whatever the person said. But it was probably just one part of what we are doing. Anyhow. I just wanted to give that context.

The way I read Mark's comments, especially in bold, is that he's saying they are not getting into the hardware business to make a phone, but they are trying to "socialize" all existing forms of hardware from other companies using software. But I also 'read into' Mark's comments above and others in the interview, the possibility they are getting into VoIP and video calling. After all, what is more "social" then talking with someone?

VoIP on Facebook seems like a no-brainer. So why the delay? Could it be that Facebook is waiting to launch this VoIP service right before Skype's pending IPO? I've already speculated that could be one reason why Google Voice 'briefly' had SIP support before Google pulled the plug. I theorized that it would benefit Google to wait to launch SIP support until just before the Skype IPO.

Or perhaps Facebook is still perfecting a VoIP offering. After all, they don't want to launch something to 500 million users, which will instantly be used by a good percentage of those users, and have VoIP bring down the Facebook network. You only get one shot to do it right and make a good first impression. Facebook could have taken note of the infamous 2007 Skype outage and the more recent 2010 outage that caused user consternation. So my guess is they are building out their infrastructure to handle VoIP calling and we will see it very soon. I wouldn't be surprised if Facebook launched something by the end of this Summer.

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