Facebook and Skype currently enjoy a friendly relationship that all started back in 2011 when Facebook collaborated with Skype to integrate these two popular social networks. They then deepened their partnership by offering direct Facebook video calling. But I always wondered why Facebook didn't offer their own VoIP service. They own the largest social network in the world and could crush Skype if they so chose. So why haven't they? My theory is that creating a reliable VoIP service on Facebook.com is not easy to do, especially when scaling to millions of users. Plus you have to contend with firewall NAT traversal, which Skype was the first to perfect, and lastly, running VoIP in a browser until now hasn't been feasible unless you chose proprietary solutions.
Enter WebRTC, a standards-based communications technology that for Facebook is truly a gift from heaven. Facebook doesn't have to spend millions on R&D developing a scalable VoIP offering that runs in a browser. Well, I should clarify and say Facebook doesn't have to develop their own VoIP client that runs cross-platform on Apple, Microsoft, or Google/Android devices all within a desktop, laptop, or mobile browser. All the big browser boys are promising WebRTC support for their browsers, which truly opens Pandora's box to allow companies such as Facebook to enter the VoIP arena. Facebook still has to develop the server-side pieces, but WebRTC gives Facebook the ability for anyone with a current browser to already be running a VoIP client built into their browser.
With WebRTC browser-based VoIP clients, why does Facebook need Skype any more? You could argue Facebook is leveraging Skype's server infrastructure without having to spend a dime building their own server infrastructure. It's unclear whether Facebook compensates Skype for use of Skype's network or not. If there is financial compensation from Facebook to Skype then certainly it makes sense for Facebook to use their own home-grown VoIP and video conferencing network to save on costs. Facebook could integrate pre-roll video ads for additional revenue or display a small ad box overlaid on top of the video conference. Perhaps charge a nominal fee to prevent ads for businesses that want to use it. The possibilities for Facebook are endless.
It's not the first time I was upbeat about a Facebook VoIP service. Back in 2010 when everyone was excited about a potential Facebook phone, I essentially said the idea was dumb and that Facebook should instead build a VoIP offering:
I'll tell you where a Facebook phone "might" make sense and it won't make the carriers very happy. Imagine if Facebook decided to offer VoIP functionality within their "Facebook phone". With over 500 million "active" Facebook users, that dwarf's Skype's 42.2 million average daily "active" users. Imagine being able to see your friend's presence info and then chat, voice, or even video call them over 3G data or a WiFi connection. You wouldn't even need PSTN numbers. Facebook would act at the largest ENUM registry in the world mapping Facebook names to other Facebook names, as well as PSTN numbers. Facebook would instantly own one of the largest phone networks in the world if they had this capability.
According to Wikipedia, there are 600 million Skype users with around 40 million active users currently online (12/27/12) - according to my Skype client. Facebook on the other hand sports 1 billion active users according to Wikipedia. At first glance it would appear Facebook's 1 billion active users beats not only the 40 million active Skype users by 25X, but it also beats their 600 million Skype userbase total. On the other hand, Skype's CEO Tony Bates recently claimed "254 million monthly active users", which is larger than my 40 million active user number, but it isn't 40 million x 30 days in a month either. My assumption is that Skype users log in and out throughout the day and month leading to Tony's 'unique' 254 million monthly active users. That appears to be confirmed by Facebook's own definition of "active user" which they define as "a user who has visited the website in the last 30 days". So to be fair, the most accurate comparison would be Facebook's 1 billion active users vs. Skype's 254 million active users as measured on a monthly basis. This still gives Facebook a nearly 4X advantage over Skype.
What can Facebook with WebRTC do?
I have no doubt that if Facebook integrates WebRTC voice and video calling into their Facebook app on mobile devices it would be used more than Skype. When you make a voice/video call to friend or business associate in Facebook, this call activity can show up in your Facebook friends' Newsfeed. This can potentially allow for better intra-company communication. For instance, sales reps can see that a customer service rep just talked with one of their important clients and then inquire if everything was resolved. Of course, another privacy setting would be warranted.
- Company hangouts / conference rooms on their corporate Facebook page - allow like-minded customers to discuss their favorite brands or interact with company officials.
- Call buttons on their corporate Facebook page (similar to Like or Subscribe buttons) that can connect to the company's main auto-attendant or directly to a call queue
- Share a video using WebRTC APIs. For instance, record a testimonial of why you like a company and then share it.
WebRTC has huge potential and I believe will encourage Facebook to eventually cut their ties to Skype in favor of their own home-grown solution. I should mention that there is a new conference run by TMC called WebRTC Conference and Expo which had its inaugural debut in San Francisco and which was very successful. The next one is coming to NYC in the Spring. I certainly plan to attend to hear the latest buzz surrounding WebRTC...