Facebook Launches Free Video Chat With Skype

The social networking giant also adds group chat, improved interface, and reveals it has 750 million users

Facebook made three significant announcements July 6, all important to the company and to the online social networking market in different ways.

First, Facebook announced that it has surpassed the 750 million-member mark, with a billion clearly within reach. The last time Facebook talked about its membership last October, it had just passed 500 million.

Secondly, the company revealed a new partnership with Skype, the world’s largest peer-to-peer video service, which is soon to become the property of Microsoft, pending the usual permissions.

Finally, Facebook launched its long-anticipated video chat service – powered, of course, by Skype.

One-Click Path to Video Chat Entry

Bates And Zuckerberg  (Photo by Chris Preimesberger)

Facebook and Skype kept entry into this new feature to a bare minimum. All a user has to do to use the video chat is to select a friend who is available and click on the video chat icon in the chat window. The service then alerts the person the user is calling. When the callee accepts the invite to video chat, the videocams are then activated.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Skype CEO Tony Bates told a standing-room-only press conference at the company’s California headquarters that the whole process only takes about a minute.

“What could possibly be simpler than one click into video chat?” the 27-year-old company co-founder said.

The new Skype function on Facebook, which requires a download of a plug-in client, enables one video user to connect with one other user at a time. In contrast, Google’s new social networking tool Google+ enables up to 10 people to talk to each other in a group video chat session format.

Zuckerberg said a group video chat function is on the drawing board.

He also announced Facebook has enabled group chat so a collaborative set of friends can instant message one another in a single chat session. The company has also updated its overall design to accommodate whatever size screen is in use. If the browser dimensions are wide enough, a list of frequently-contacted friends will appear in a widget at the side of the screen.

“For example, when you go to the chat function, you can see who’s online – and you also can see who’s not online. Another window will open up to tell you that, depending upon the size of your browser,” Zuckerberg said.

Playing Catch-Up

Gartner Research vice president Ray Valdes told eWEEK he thought Facebook is “clearly in a defensive position” when it comes up against Google+, for a few reasons.

“I agree with Facebook’s assessment that we’re moving from a era where we make the initial connection to an era in which you assume a connection and build engagement. They’re parallel with Google+ as far as group chat, but they’re clearly in a defensive position, because they don’t have circles and they don’t have the group video,” Valdes said.

“So in that sense, in terms of features, they’re playing catch-up. However, they’ve [Facebook] got the installed base of 700 million-plus people and the social connections, so Google, on the other hand, is playing catch-up in that area,” he added.

Facebook’s video chat has an advantage because it is easy to use, but it also has a disadvantage “because it’s ‘arm’s length’ technology”, according to Valdes. “This is because it’s built on Skype, whereas Google has built their’s all by themselves,” he said.

Zuckerberg virtually shrugged off the accomplishment of gaining 750 million users earlier in the conference as if it was not a big deal.

“The reason why we didn’t report it is we don’t think it’s the metric to watch right now,” Zuckerberg said. “We’re more interested in the value that Facebook brings to people and the things they share on it.”