Can Facebook Become the New Skype?
The company could offer calling services between Facebook users, creating an instant calling community of over 800 million people and companies.
Late last week, Facebook rolled out upgrades to its messaging service for Apple and Android phones. The new messenger application will allow users to send traditional text and picture messages but also allows users to send voice messages through the same application. The audio messages can be up to a minute in length. Facebook is calling this "social voice mail", and it has the same value proposition as legacy voice mail, but with a twist.
One could look at this and scratch their heads and wonder why Facebook is doing this. By and large, most people hate voice mail, they don't use it very often, and find it a pain to access. Visual voice mail has made things a little simpler in that you don't need to go through each voice mail in succession to find the one you're looking for, but most people use voice mail to simply say "call me".
Facebook is trying to shed the legacy thinking around voice mail and have social voice mail become part of a single conversation. You text me, I'm driving, Siri reads it to me, I record a response back to you. Alternatively, if someone asked you a question in a text message that has a complicated answer, or you're simply too lazy to type it, then simply record a message and send it back.
The key is that the various messaging systems, texts, pictures and voice are all "unified" into one application. I believe this unification is one of the reasons why the UC vendors need to shift to being stronger platform vendors instead of standalone islands, and this is a belief I have held for years. In fact, the last article I wrote for the legendary BCR magazine was discussing how users would rather have more features in the same application rather than have more functionality but in siloed apps.
The other interesting element of what Facebook announced was the Facebook VoIP service. Facebook is testing a VoIP audio service in Canada right now. I suppose they chose Canada for a few reasons: Canadians are nice and won't complain if it doesn't work. The World Junior Hockey Championships just ended (congrats the US) and it was looking like there wouldn't be an NHL this year. The CFL already had its Grey Cup so there's no football to watch. Combine those factors with the cold Canadian winters and what else would Canadians rather do than trial Facebook VoIP?
The VoIP service is free to use, but consumers do need to be aware that it's burning data usage, so it could get more expensive than regular calls depending on the user's data plan. The "FaceVoIP" service is limited to iPhones within Canada, meaning users can't call any Android users or iPhone users outside the Great White North.
This service holds a lot of potential for Facebook, which makes almost no money from mobile today. The company could offer calling services between Facebook users, creating an instant calling community of over 800 million people and companies. And unlike Skype, where you have to go search for people that might or might not have Skype, you know who is on Facebook because people have already friended one another.
I can see this easily being the most popular non-dialer calling service, based on the length of time people spend in Facebook today. I'm in the app, updating things, uploading pictures and need to call someone. Why leave Facebook to do it when the person I want to contact shows a "green" presence status indicating they're currently logged into Facebook? Just click and dial.
What's curious about this is that Facebook could have chosen to integrate Skype into the applications, which would have made sense given there's an official partnership between the two. However, rumors are that the partnership is currently very rocky, so going its own way is logical for Facebook.
There's a few ways Facebook could make money off of this too. It could offer low-cost, off-net VoIP calling services, similar to the way Skype does. This could allow a user to drop to the lowest-cost voice plan and just make calls over VoIP. The cost of data plan overages could make this unattractive, but if a user utilized the service only when connected over WiFi, it could significantly reduce the cost of calling from a cell phone. Another idea could be to somehow insert ads into the interface or a short one at the start of the call. However they do it, this might be Facebook's fastest path to being able to monetize mobile.
I may be overstating the success Facebook will have here but I don't think so. Facebook VoIP will challenge the traditional dialer as well as services like Skype and Vonage Mobile. Why? Because users already spend more time in Facebook than any other application, so why not call directly from it? I wasn't surprised by this announcement at all. In fact, the only surprise to me was that they took so long to do this.