The Skype-powered Video Calling service looks easy to use but only supports one-to-one conversation. Google+ competition looms large.
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Facebook wants to make it easier for its users to see each others' faces. The company, as expected, introduced integrated Video Calling, along with Group Chat and a new chat interface design.
Facebook Video Calling, powered by a compact Skype plug-in, allows users to launch a video chat session with one other person using only two clicks. Because the plug-in is downloaded on-demand, with a single permission request, users can initiate video calls and recipients can answer without pre-installing Skype's software.
This approach does away with a traditional barrier to the growth and adoption of software-based services, on both the Web and the desktop--the need to install and maintain software.
"The majority of users don't want to take the time to configure this stuff themselves," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the group of journalists who had come to Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., to see what had been billed as the introduction of "something awesome."
Apple has taught the simplicity-of-installation lesson well, first with the iTunes App Store and more recently with its Mac App Store, and the rest of the industry is running with the idea. Google has been promoting automatic updates for its Chrome browser and its cloud-based applications have reinforced the notion that software manages itself, with minimal intervention from the user.
"We're going to see more, in general, of the Apple philosophy that it-just-works and you don't need to know why," said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg in a phone interview. "Users care about functionality; they don't care about technology."
Facebook's new Group Chat capability adheres to that philosophy: It's simple and certain to be appreciated by Facebook users, who can now assemble in groups and chat among themselves.
Ease of use, however, only extends until you hit vendors' walls: Facebook's Video Calling service cannot connect to Google's or Apple's, a situation reminiscent of the balkanized world of instant messaging software.
During the press conference, Zuckerberg confronted the inevitable question about Google's recently launched Google+ social network. He was asked what he thought of the Google's multi-person video chat service Hangouts and responded in a manner that some have characterized as defensive.
"Today, we're doing one-on-one [video chat]," Zuckerberg said, as if to suggest multi-person chat may be released in the future. "I wouldn't rule anything out," he said about the possibility of multi-person video chat. "But I also wouldn't undersell the importance of what we have today. The vast majority of video chat is one-on-one chat. I just think that this is super-awesome."
What Zuckerberg didn't explain was that Skype offers multi-person video chat through its desktop software as a premium service, for $4.49 per month in the U.S.
"As far as the Google stuff goes, I'm not going to say a lot about Google, plus we've all only spent a little bit of time on the service," he added, concluding that the growing interest in social apps validates his view about social networks turning into social infrastructure.
In his preamble to the product introductions, Zuckerberg laid out his vision of the where social networking is headed. He asserted that the success of social networks over the next five years will be measured not by user growth but by the apps developed atop now mature social infrastructure. To put it another way, it's all about what's built on the platform, at least until Facebook goes public: Then the yardstick will be advertising revenue.
Zuckerberg's insistence that his company's success should be measured in a new way makes sense: Having reached 750 million users in seven years, Facebook can count about a third of the world's Internet users as account holders. Getting another 750 million isn't likely to happen as fast.
Gartenberg said Facebook's partnership with Skype shows that there's a lot more to social networking than updating your status and sharing pictures. "It shows the stakes are being raised," he said. "This really helps extend Skype as a social network in and of itself."
And by extension, it helps Microsoft, which is in the process of acquiring Skype.
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