Posts categorized "Facebook"

Facebook Messenger's "Instant Video" Lets You Simultaneously Use Video and Chat

FB instant video

The messaging wars continue! Today Facebook Messenger added "Instant Video" to it's iOS and Android app, allowing you to easily share live video while still in a text chat. Facebook has had "video calling" since back in May 2015, but that requires both parties to answer the video call in the same way that Facetime, Wire and every other video app does it.

"Instant Video" is different:

  • VIDEO STARTS OUT ONE-WAY - Only the video of the person initiating "Instant Video" is shown. The recipient sees the video of the sender, but their video connection is NOT enabled. Now, the recipient can start sending video, but they don't have to.

  • AUDIO IS OFF INITIALLY - When the sender starts their video, the recipient receives the video without any sound. They can easily start getting sound by tapping on the speaker icon on the video, but this is great because often you are having a text conversation precisely because you don't want to use audio.

  • YOU CAN STILL SEE THE CHAT - The video overlays the upper right corner of the chat window, but that's it. You can still see the chat messages and continue having your chat.

This last point is quite important and useful. This "Instant Video" lets you add video to a chat, while still allowing chat to be the primary communication medium.

Predictably, there was a great amount of media coverage of this launch today. Some noted that this was yet-another-way Facebook was cloning Snapchat. Others called this an answer to Google Duo.

Regardless, I immediately saw a personal use case. Occasionally I will go to a local coffee shop to pick up muffins for my wife and I. The flavors are always changing. If I don't see one I think she'll like, I often wind up calling - or texting her with the flavors. But it would be actually a bit easier and faster if I texted her "which one do you want?" and then sent her a live video stream where I panned back and forth across the choices. Sure, that may seem a silly use case... but it immediately sprang to my mind.

For "Instant Video" to work, a couple of conditions need to be true:

  • YOU BOTH NEED THE LATEST MESSENGER APP - You need to have the latest version for either iOS or Android.

  • YOU BOTH NEED TO BE *IN* THE CHAT - This is key. You can't just open up Messenger and start sending video to someone who is listed in your contacts. You need to actually be in communication with the other person.

Once this second item is true the video icon on the top of the screen starts pulsating - at which point you can start sending "Instant Video".

I'd note that this is the same icon used to initiate a "regular" video call. However, when you are in a chat with someone else the pulsating icon means you can do this new "Instant Video" style of chat.

I found I really liked the overlay aspect. Here's the view I saw on my end:

FB Messenger video overlay

It worked very well to continue the text conversation while having the video right there, too.

It's an interesting addition as Facebook continues to try to make Messenger be THE tool that people use for messaging. Facebook has this advantage of having an absolutely massive "directory" of users (see "the Directory Dilemma") and so we may see this helping with keep people inside of Facebook's shiny walls.

What do you think? Do you see yourself using this "Instant Video"?


Facebook Messenger Launches Group Conference Calls (Audio-only)

Continuing their efforts to be THE communication platform you use, the Messenger team at Facebook rolled out "group calling" this week within the Messenger app on iOS and Android. The new feature was announced by David Marcus, head of the FB Messenger team. Right now this is audio-only (i.e. not group video) and per media reports is limited to 50 participants.

I had to go to the AppStore and upgrade the Messenger app on my iPhone to the latest version, but once I did, I suddenly had a phone icon in the upper right corner of a group chat:

FB groupcalls 1

Tapping that phone icon brought me to a screen where I could choose which of the group members I wanted to bring into the group call:

FB groupcalls 2

After tapping "Call" in the lower right, Messenger launched the call and gave me feedback about who it was connecting, etc:

FB groupcalls 3

It then connected those who were available and four of us were in a group conference call:

FB groupcalls 4

As you can see in the screen captures, I had the standard buttons to mute my microphone and to activate the speakerphone.

AUDIO QUALITY - The audio quality was quite good. I couldn't find any technical info about what they are doing "under the hood" but one of the folks on the call understood that it was WebRTC-based, which would then imply the use of the excellent Opus audio codec. We experienced a couple of audio hiccups but nothing outside the normal VoIP experience and nothing that really detracted from the call. It certainly sounded like a rich, wideband-audio connection.

We didn't stay on the call for long as I didn't want to take their time (or my own), but exiting the call was simple and brought us right back into the group chat to continue our communication.

MOBILE-ONLY - One concern noted by a couple of folks was that the incoming audio call only rang on their tablet or phone, i.e. the iOS or Android app. It did not ring inside of Facebook in a desktop web browser or in the Messenger.com website.

Beyond that, though, it seemed a very straightforward and positive experience.

Now, Facebook Messenger is not the first to do this, of course. Skype has had group audio and video calls for years. As Venturebeat noted, in March of last year Line launched group calling for up to 200 people and WeChat added group audio and video calls in September.

Still, this is Facebook Messenger, with its 900 million users, providing yet another reason to NOT use traditional audio conferencing solutions.

I would suspect, too, that video conferencing can't be too far off, either, given that Facebook Messenger currently does let you do 1:1 video calls - and also that competitors offer group video calls.

It continues to be an absolutely fascinating time to watch the severe disruption of traditional telecommunications... and this move by Facebook is yet another example of how the ways we are communicating are changing.

What do you think? Will you use the group calling within Facebook Messenger?


Facebook Takes On Snapchat With Launch of "Messenger Codes" To Easily Connect Users

On the eve of Facebook's major "F8 Developer Conference" happening April 12-13, the company has launched a clear attack on Snapchat's "Snapcode" method of connecting users with their new "Messenger Codes". If you go into the newest version of Facebook Messenger on iOS (which is the only platform I have to test right at this moment) and click on the gear icon in the lower right labeled "Settings", you now see a brand new profile screen:

Facebook messenger code settings

There are two things to note here:

  1. The circular shaped code around my profile image; and
  2. The new short URL of m.me/dyork which brings me to a web version of Facebook Messenger. (More on that in a different post.)

The circular code clearly reminded me of Snapchat's "Snapcode", where mine is:

Snapcode dyork

And sure enough, when I clicked on the "People" icon at the bottom of the Messenger app, the first option on the top is "Scan Code":

Facebook messenger scan code

Since I had learned about these codes via a tweet from Chris Messina, I pointed my phone at my laptop screen where his Messenger Code was visible:

Fb messenger messina

As I got closer to the code, the Messenger app automagically recognized the code and put me into a message window with Chris:

Fb messenger messina success

I didn't chat with him as I didn't have a reason to do so and I don't recall us actually meeting. But I could ... it was this easy to get connected.

In a similar way to Snapchat, from the "Scan Code" window there is a symbol in the lower left corner that lets you access your phone's photos. So if you receive a Messenger Code via some other method (such as Twitter where people are already posting their codes using the #F8 hashtag) and save that image to your photos, you can access it from the "Scan Code" page and connect with the person.

From that same "Scan Code" page you can also tap "My Code" to see your code. Here's mine:

Fb my code

I can now share that Messenger Code out through the icon in the upper right and get it out into other social services (as I did on Twitter), or via text message, email, DropBox or anything else.

(Amusingly, while I could share the image out to Snapchat, the image is shared as square and since Snapchat uses full vertical images it cropped the image... meaning that the full Messenger Code would not be displayed and presumably would not work.)

So What?

At this point you may be saying "so what?" and wondering what value this really brings.

As I wrote about last year, messaging is all about "the directory dilemma", i.e.

People will only USE a communication application if the people they want to talk to are using the application.

It's all about having the most massive directory of users and growing that directory.

As Snapchat has demonstrated, the use of these "user codes" takes away the friction of figuring out how to connect with someone.

Over the past months a number of people I know have changed their Twitter and Facebook profile images to be their Snapcode. All I need to do, then, is point Snapchat on my phone toward their image and... ta da.. I can send them a connection request. No worry trying to look up their name... or figure out which of the many "Dan Yorks" I am if they are trying to connect to me.

Simple. Easy.

In many ways it's the proprietary version of QR codes... although focused on connecting two users rather than (as is often the case with a QR code) sending you to a web page or other site.

I expect we'll start seeing people change their Twitter profile photos to include their Facebook Messenger Code.

If people do, Facebook can steal the messaging from that rival platform. If you advertise your Messenger Code as the profile on another service, you are effectively saying "I prefer to get Facebook Messenger messages".

Take away the friction of connecting and let users advertise how to connect on your messaging platform.

If I were the organizer of an event, and I wanted to use FB Messenger as my primary messaging app, I could very easily see adding my Messenger Code to the event website, or even to printed flyers that might hang in a local coffee shop, library, gym, school or wherever...

Simple. Easy.

What About Brands? Facebook Pages?

I could see a huge benefit to brands to be able to publish these Messenger Codes, particularly with the expectation of "chat bots" being unveiled at F8 this week.

Again, from Facebook's point of view, this would keep the messaging within Facebook's walled garden, and continue to keep Facebook having the biggest directory of active users.

Tonight I couldn't discover anything similar in the Pages app or any other place. But you would think it would be coming... we'll have to stay tuned to F8 coverage this week to find out more.

What About Messaging Spam?

But if you publish your Messenger Code everywhere, what about spam?

Another good question... and since I published my Messenger Code on Twitter, perhaps I'll find out the answer over the next day or so! :-)

Perhaps Facebook will filter them all into the "Message Requests" that was very hard to find. I don't know! I have to think they will do something to ensure Messenger doesn't descend into the spam pit as email has.

How Else Can Messenger Codes Be Used?

We'll have to see what they tell us at the "F8 Developer Conference" this week... stay tuned!

What do you think about these Messenger Codes? Do you think it will help in connecting you with people? Will your promote your code? Or do you think it is all a waste of time? Let me know in the comments or on social media...


Updated "Directory Dilemma" Article Now On CircleID...

Back in December, 2014, I published a post here called "The Directory Problem - The Challenge For Wire, Talko And Every Other "Skype-Killer" OTT App". After receiving a good bit of feedback, I've now published a new version over on CircleID:
The Directory Dilemma - Why Facebook, Google and Skype May Win the Mobile App War

I incorporated a good bit of the feedback I received and also brought in some newer numbers and statistics. Of note, I now have a section on WebRTC where I didn't before. You'll also notice a new emphasis in the title... I'm now talking about the potential winners versus the challengers. I also chose "Directory Dilemma" not only for the alliteration but also because the situation really isn't as much a "problem" as it is an overall "dilemma". It may or may not be a "problem".

I'm not done yet.

I'm still seeking feedback. I intend to do yet another revision of this piece, but in doing so intend to:

  • Change it from the informal tone at the beginning to more of a "paper" style;
  • Include a bit more about potential solutions.

Comments and feedback are definitely welcome... either as comments here on this site, on social media or as email to "[email protected]".

I'm not sure when I'll do that next iteration, but probably later this year.

Thanks in advance!

P.S. An audio commentary on this topic is available... see the embedded audio plater at the bottom of this post... (below the graphic)


Directory dilemma




WebRTCHacks Publishes Analysis of Facebook and WhatsApp Usage of WebRTC

WebrtchacksThe team over at webrtcH4cKS (aka "WebRTCHacks") have been publishing some great articles about WebRTC for a while now, and I thought I'd point to two in particular worth a read. Philipp Hancke has started a series of posts examining how different VoIP services are using WebRTC and he's started out exploring two of the biggest, Facebook and WhatsApp, in these posts:

Those articles are summaries explaining the findings, with much-longer detailed reports also available for download:

Both of these walk through the packet captures and provide a narrative around what is being seen in the discovery process.

A common finding between both reports is that the services are not using the more secure mechanism of DTLS for key exchange to set up encrypted voice channels. Instead they are using the older SDES mechanism that has a number of challenges, but, as noted by the report, is typically faster in enabling a call setup.

All in all the reports make for interesting reading. It's great to see both Facebook and WhatsApp using WebRTC and I think this will only continue to help with the overall growth of WebRTC as a platform. As an audio guy, I was pleased to see that Facebook Messenger is using the Opus codec, which is of course the preferred codec for WebRTC... but that doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be implemented by companies using WebRTC within their own closed products. Kudos to the Facebook team for supporting Opus!

Thanks to Philipp Hancke for writing these reports and I look forward to reading more in the series!


WhatsApp Calling Arrives on iOS - More Telecom Disruption Ahead!

Whatsapp callingAs I checked my AppStore updates on my iPhone this week I was surprised but pleased to see that WhatsApp now includes "WhatsApp Calling". As it says:
"Call your friends and family using WhatsApp for free, even if they're in another country. WhatsApp calls use your phone's Internet connection rather than your cellular plan's voice minutes. Data charges may apply.

How many ways can you spell "disruption"?
(Hint: w - h - a - t - s - a - p - p)

Sure, there have been a zillion mobile apps providing Over-The-Top (OTT) voice services, many of which I've written about here on this site.

But this is WhatsApp!

This is the application that just passed 800 million monthly active users! (Techmeme link) With projections to hit 1 billion monthly active users by the end of the year.

Oh, and it's owned by Facebook! :-)

Now, I personally don't use WhatsApp that much right now. The people who I want to message are primarily using iMessage, Facebook Messenger or Wire. (And every once in a great while I'll fire up Skype on my iPhone.)

But obviously there are 800 million people who do use WhatsApp each month... and they now have free calling! (If they are on Android, iOS or BlackBerry 10... and subject to a staggered rollout, i.e. people will get the actual ability to call over the next while.)

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

WhatsApp provides a messaging app with a very simple user experience (UX) that works seamlessly inside the iPhone. Now that same app can be used for calling. And most importantly, WhatsApp has the massive directory of users.

The legacy telcos are going to be saying good bye to even more of their diminishing calling revenue...

Interesting times ahead!

More on this topic:


The Directory Problem - The Challenge For Wire, Talko And Every Other "Skype-Killer" OTT App

Skype directoryAs much as I am enjoying the new Wire app, there is a fundamental problem that Wire faces... as well as Talko, Firefox Hello and every other Over-The-Top (OTT) or WebRTC application that is seeking to become THE way that we communicate via voice, chat and/or video from our mobile phones and desktops. That is:
How do they gather the "directory" of people that others want to talk to?

The fundamental challenge all of these applications face is this:

People will only USE a communication application if the people they want to talk to are using the application.

And where I say "talk" it could also be "chat" or "message" or... pick your communication verb.

It's all about the "directory" of users.

There's a war out there right now... and it's a war for the future of our communications between each other. It's a war for messaging... and it's also a war for voice and video.

And it all comes back to... which communications application or service can provide the most comprehensive directory of users?

Which communications tool will be the one that people use the most? Will any of them replace the default communications of the mobile phone?

NOTE: A number of updates have been added to the bottom of this post.

Today's Fragmented User Experience

The reality is that today we use several different tools for real-time communications ... and that creates a bit of a frustrating user experience. If I want to send a message to Joe, do I send him a message on Skype? Facebook? WhatsApp? Google+? Twitter? SMS? iMessage? BBM? Wire? email?

If I want to call him and speak via voice or video, do I use Skype? Facebook Messenger? Google+ Hangouts? Facetime? Wire? Talko? Viber? Firefox Hello? <insert WebRTC or OTT app du jour here>? Or just call him on his regular old phone line?

By trial and error we start to figure out which of the people with whom we regularly communicate are available over which channels. Certain family members may be through Facebook... others through WhatsApp or Skype. Work colleagues through Jabber or Yammer... except for some of them who primarily use Skype. These friends detest Facebook and so they are in Google+ ... and then there's that guy who thinks all of these new apps are junk and only wants to talk to you via SMS and phone.

It's a mess.

And every new app and service wants to fix it... and wants to be THE communications application/service that you use.

Skype/Microsoft Has A Directory

Over the years, I think it would be impossible to count the number of times we've seen new communications applications trumpted as "Skype-killers". "This new app/service WILL be the one to replace Skype. It's new. It's better. It supports (something). Everyone will switch and the world will be so much better!"

Except they don't switch.

Even when Skype's audio quality is no longer what it once was.

And why not?

Because Skype has a massive user directory.

When I speak at a conference I can ask the attendees "who has a Skype ID?" and usually almost every hand goes up. They may not use Skype as their primary communication tool, but they have an ID. They can be found on Skype.

Now a large part of this is because Skype has now been around for over 11 years and truly led the disruption that "consumer VoIP" has caused in the larger telecom industry. Part of it is that Skype prioritized the user experience and made it drop-dead simple to install and use. Part of it is that Skype made it easy to find other Skype users.

But the point is that Skype amassed this huge directory - and now is the default way that many of us communicate via voice or video over the Internet. Certainly many of us, myself included, would like a better mechanism at this point... but we still use Skype because that's where the people are! The directory of users is there.

Facebook Has A Directory (Two, Actually)

Facebook messenger callWhen it comes to a user directory, certainly one of the biggest in the world right now is Facebook. With over a billion users Facebook has an enormous ability to connect people together.

With Facebook Messenger, they are definitely aiming to replace SMS and become THE messaging application you use on your mobile phone.

And now in many regions of the world, Facebook lets you initiate voice conversations through simply clicking on a telephone icon in the Messenger interface.

They make it simple and easy... and it works because "everyone" has a Facebook account (or at least 1 billion people do).

Facebook has a massive user directory.

(Of course, every chat and voice conversation can then be mined for data for Facebook advertisers... but that's a topic for another post...)

Facebook actually as two massive user directories if you consider that they also own WhatsApp and most stats right now say that WhatsApp has over 600 million users. (Which is actually more than Facebook Messenger, which recently crossed the 500 million user mark.)

Put these two together and while there is certainly duplication between the two directories, they do represent a huge directory of users.

P.S. And Facebook actually has a third user directory in the form of Instagram (which now has 300 million users)... but we've not yet seen them do anything with real-time communications there.

Google Has A Directory

And then of course Google has its own massive directory. Everyone who has a "Google Account". Every Gmail user. Every Google+ user. Every Google docs user.

Hundreds of millions of Google users.

Google's focus today seems to be on Hangouts, which is available from the desktop and also from the iOS and Android mobile platforms. While Hangouts started out inside of Google+, Google has separated the application out. I'll note that just today they are rolling out a new version of Hangouts on Android that lets you add your phone number so that you are easier to find. They may at some point also integrate their Google Voice offering better into Hangouts.

Apple Has A Directory

Apple idIt goes without saying that Apple has its own massive directory from the hundreds of millions of iPhone and Mac users, almost all of whom get integrated into Apple's iMessage and Facetime services through their Apple ID. With iMessage and Facetime, Apple's directory includes my own phone number, as well as my email addresses.

Apple also makes the user experience insanely simple. When I go to call a contact, I am offered the choice of calling them via Facetime (audio or video) or the regular phone. When I send a message, Apple automagically sends the message over iMessage if the recipient is registered in Apple's directory. As a user I have no clue about this unless I realize that "blue bubbles" are iMessage and "green bubbles" are regular SMS.

The point is that Apple can do all this and make it so simple because they have this massive user directory.

LINE And WeChat Have Directories

While we in North America don't tend to know their names, there are apps building huge user directories in Asia. WeChat, based in China, now has over 468 million monthly active users worldwide. LINE, out of Japan and used in much of Asia, has over 170 million monthly active users. There are others such as KakaoTalk in Korea that have large directories.

The Telcos Have Directories

Of course, the original user directories for mobile phone users reside with all of the mobile service providers / telephone companies. They have the customer names and phone numbers. Their challenge is one of sharing that information between each other - and also their general challenges with embracing the world of OTT communications apps that threaten their basic revenue streams.

Some telcos have tried - and continue to try. Telefonica had "Tu ME" and now has "Tu Go". Orange has Libon. T-Mobile did have "Bobsled" but that seems to have disappeared. And then of course there was (and still is, although on life support) Joyn, the traditional telcos attempt to provide rich communication services and fight back against OTT apps. As Dean Bubley wrote at the time, RCS/Joyn was in trouble from the start and now seems to have faded from consideration.

I should note that Telefonica is doing some great work in the WebRTC space and is involved with Mozilla's latest Firefox Hello effort. There are other traditional carriers who are also doing some good work with WebRTC and other OTT works ... but I've still not really seen any of them figure out how to tie their apps and services back to the large user directories they collectively have.

Everyone Wants To OWN The Directory

Notice a common thread across all of these directories?

They are all owned / controlled by corporations - some of whom are among the largest in the world.

They have NO interest in sharing their directories.

They are all about the "lock-in".

Well... I should say... they are glad to "share" in the sense that they are glad for you to use their directory as a source of identity in your application or service. "Login with Facebook" or "Login with Google" or "Login with Twitter" ...

A better way to say it would be:

They have no interest in federation / interoperability between directories.

They want to own the directory. They want to be THE source of "identity" ... but that's a topic for yet another post.

And each of the ones I've listed is a commercial entity with their own investors or shareholders and their own ideas of what they will do with your data and your communication...

(NOTE: This is not a new problem - I wrote about "walled gardens" back in 2007 with regard to email and messaging - some names have changed but the problem remains.)

One Directory To Rule Them All?

Amidst all this we've seen various attempts to provide a global directory for IP communications. ENUM was one in the open standard space, but the original vision of "public ENUM" ran into a barrage of security and privacy issues and faded from view. (ENUM is still heavily used within SIP-based networks either within telcos or within peering relationships between telcos.)

On the corporate side, he original Google Voice was an attempt to put users in control, at least as far as a telephone number. Give out one number and have it ring many devices or apps. The .TEL people tried this with their original vision for that top-level domain. iNum tried to offer this with their numbers. Many other attempts have been made...

The question with all of these is how to make the directory accessible to other entities in a secure fashion - and how to deal with privacy issues, telemarketers, spammers, attackers, etc.

Back to the "Directory Problem"

How, then, does a new startup like Wire or Talko or Firefox Hello or whoever-releases-their-WebRTC-app-today build up a significant enough directory of users so that the application is usable by large numbers of people?

How do they compete with these massive user directories being built by Facebook, Google, Apple and others?

I don't know.

(If I did I'd probably start up a company... ;-) )

What I do know is that, as I said in my initial thoughts on Wire, "my iPhone is littered with the dead carcasses of so many other apps that have launched trying to be THE communication platform we all want to use."

Some may opt to use the identity systems of one of the major vendors mentioned before - but now you are putting your user directory in the hands of some other entity and relying on them to be there. And... you are excluding people who may not use that system.

Some apps/services may make it easy for you to "find your friends" through using your "social graph"... the connections you have on Facebook, Google, etc.

Some apps use your phone number as an identifier, but they still have to build up their own directory of users.

I don't know the answer... but I see this as a fundamental challenge for any new entrant in the space. How do they gain the directory of users so that people will be able to communicate with others using this new service?

THAT is what the team at Wire needs to answer... and Talko... and every other app.

Unless, of course, they just want to be happy as a smaller, more niche player.

But most of these apps and services want to be THE communication platform you use more than any other. Their success - and funding - is tied to that goal.


A Final Thought - The Bigger Picture

Let me end with one thought... this "directory problem" is in fact tied to the larger challenge of "identity" on the Internet. Back in the pre-Internet days our "identity" for real-time communications was simple - our telephone number. We might have had several phone numbers, but they were ours and they were/are globally unique and globally routable.

With the Internet, we gradually moved to where email addresses were (and still are in many ways) our "identity" online and became the identifiers that we used for many forms of communication.

BUT... when we've moved to IP-based real-time communications, first with instant-messaging / chat and then with voice and video, we've also moved into a realm of fractured identities and identifiers with, as noted above, many different companies vying to have us use their system so that their directory is the most complete and comprehensive.

I do definitely worry about a future in which our identities and the user directories are controlled by large corporations. This, to me, seems like it could be a severe barrier to the "permissionless innovation" that has brought about the "Internet of opportunity" that we have today.

I'd like to hope that we'll arrive at some form of distributed and decentralized identities and directories that can be federated together so that people can find each other. (Which is why I'm intrigued by what the Matrix.org folks and others are doing.) I do worry, though, that the financial incentives are there for the larger corporate players to fight each other for dominance... and leave us regular users of the Internet without a choice.

Thoughts?


An audio commentary on this topic is available on SoundCloud:


UPDATE #1 - On Twitter, Aswath Rao asserted that Firefox Hello doesn't have the directory problem because it provides a way to pass a URL out to anyone so that they can simply call you at that URL. I documented this myself in a post back on December 2nd. I can see his point, but I would argue that for Firefox Hello to be truly useful to me in my regular ongoing communications, I need some form of a "directory", either as a directory in the cloud maintained by Mozilla, or as a local address book in my Firefox browser that keeps track of those URLs. To the degree that Mozilla wants to let Firefox Hello users build up their contact list, I think they still have this issue of building the directory.

UPDATE #2 - In the comments to this post, Tim Panton points out that in many cases people do not want to be contacted. I agree, and in fact I think that the prevalence of email spam is in part what has driven so much of us to separate (walled gardens) messaging apps such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Within those walls I have MUCH stronger control over who may contact me at what point. I do agree that any communications app/service needs those kind of controls - whether that is part of the directory or part of the client application or in the service infrastructure seems to be a bit of an implementation consideration.

UPDATE #3 - The folks at FireRTC contend that they don't have to worry about the directory because they are leveraging PSTN telephone numbers. As I replied, they can certainly use the phone number as an identifier to locate other users. This is a great idea and is done by many similar apps, including Facetime, WhatsApp, Viber and more. BUT... all that does is help bootstrap the directory creation process. They still have to build their directory so that users of their app can find and contact other users.

UPDATE #4 - Aswath and I have been engaged in a Twitter discussion where he points out that WebRTC addresses can be much more decentralized like email addresses have been. He argues that they can provide much greater richness and freedom than a static directory of users.

He's right... BUT... we now come back to the "discovery" issue that directories also address. How do I find your WebRTC URL to call you at? Sure, you can email it or IM it to me ... and I can then store it in my address book or contact list. But somehow I have to get it first - and I have to know that it is the current and best address to use for you.

I often use Facebook to send a private message to someone because it's easier than finding their email address and sending them a message. Now, if I synced my contact lists across all my devices perhaps it would be easier... but I don't and so sometimes FB messaging is easiest. I can see the same kind of thing happening with WebRTC URLs.

UPDATE #5 - In response to this post, Phil Wolff wrote a long series of tweets with ideas for further research on this topic.


If you found this post interesting or useful, please consider either:



Telcos Should Be Worried - Facebook Controls More OTT Messaging With WhatsApp Acquisition

WhatsappTalk about disruption... the telecom part of the media world is buzzing with news of Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp. Techmeme is currently showing MANY posts on the topic and the day is just getting started.

The key point here is that WhatsApp is a prime example of what is often called an "Over-The-Top" or "OTT" application. It uses the data channel on a mobile phone to provide services. Here's another key point from the Facebook news release:

  • Messaging volume approaching the entire global telecom SMS volume.

The traditional telecom companies ("telcos") have already seen their voice revenue seriously eroded by Skype and so many of the other OTT voice applications (such as Viber, which was just acquired) and they've been watching SMS traffic and revenue plateau and decline.

WhatsApp was already one of the major players in the mobile messaging space... indeed I have friends in Europe who tell me they can't remember the last time they sent an actual SMS message because they use WhatsApp for all their messaging. Their usage, too, is not just about the "free" cost of WhatsApp messages - it's also about the richer messaging experience they can get over WhatsApp versus plain SMS. They can send photos, display an online status, engage in group chats and much more that was just either difficult or expensive to do with SMS. And... they can send messages to anyone using the app regardless of where they are in the world. They don't have to worry about fees to send SMS messages internationally.

The user experience is so very simple and easy.

Plus, WhatsApp (and other OTT messaging apps) solves the directory issue by just using your mobile phone number as the identifier within their system. With a quick approval of access to your contact list you can immediately start sending messages to any other WhatsApp users. You don't have to try to get anyone's number... it's all stored in the big giant (and constantly growing) WhatsApp user directory.

And now... instead of WhatsApp being a venture-backed startup out there building its service, it is now backed by Facebook, at this point one of the more powerful corporate entities on the global stage today.

Note, too, that Facebook has also been an OTT messaging player for some time with their "Facebook Messenger" application, which even introduced voice calling at one point in the US. In a post today, Mark Zuckerberg writes about how the two apps will co-exist for different communities of friends/contacts (see also the WhatsApp blog post). Zuckerberg also writes of how WhatsApp is, in his mind, on its way to connecting a billion people.

And that is really what should concern the telcos - one of the largest OTT messaging apps is now owned by the largest global social network.

A Larger Danger

There is, though, a broader concern, not just for the telcos but for all of us. All of these OTT messaging apps... whether they are WhatsApp, Line, Facebook Messenger, Apple's iMessage, Google+ Hangouts, Skype ... or any other... are creating SILOS of users.

They are proprietary "walled gardens" of messaging.

You can ONLY send messages to people who have the app installed on their mobile device.

Say what you will about SMS, but the reality is that you can send a message to pretty much anyone with a mobile phone, anywhere on the planet. No apps to download... it's just a "feature" of having a mobile phone.

WhatsApp requires the app. And specifically the app from Whatsapp and not anyone else's application. WhatsApp does NOT have an open API that anyone can use. In fact, WhatsApp's legal counsel was recently sending DMCA takedown notices to crack down on projects interacting with Whatsapp (presumably in the run-up to this acquisition). WhatsApp - and now Facebook - are in total control of the user experience and interaction for mobile messaging on the service.

Is this REALLY what we want for the future of mobile messaging?

Way back in 2007, I wrote about how "e-mail" was returning into walled gardens and while today's players are different than the diagram I had then, the situation is similar.

This is not the open Internet.

And that should concern us all.


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Facebook Rolls Out Free Voice Calls In The US On iOS - A Quick Walkthrough And A Big, Huge Caveat

Facebook voice 1Facebook today rolled out it's free voice calling in the US via its Messenger app for iOS (iPhone/iPad). The Verge was the first I saw with the news and a great number of sites are now following.

Voice calling through Facebook has the potential to be hugely disruptive... rather than calling on your phone over your regular phone connection - or even rather than using Skype, you can just call from directly within Facebook. This is the kind of "Over-The-Top (OTT)" app that gives telco operators a fit... goodbye, telco voice minutes!

Plus, it's using some HD voice codec so the sound quality is outstanding.

And since the folks at Facebook want you to live your life inside of their very pretty walls, this just provides yet one more reason for you to stay within those walls.

BUT... there's a big huge caveat that I'll get to in a moment.
 

A Quick Walkthrough

First, though, let's look at how it works. When you go into the Messenger app and open a chat with a friend (in this case, Jim Courtney), all you have to do is click the "i" button in the upper right:

Facebook voice 2

After you do that you will get a window that I showed at the beginning of an article where you have a "Free Call" button.

Facebook voice 10

When you press that, you begin a call experience very similar to any other call on your iPhone. First you are connecting to the other person and then you are in the actual call:

Facebook voice 3 Facebook voice4

There is apparently the standard accept and decline buttons. (I neglected to have Jim call me back to get a screenshot.) While you are in the call you have a button to hang up, a speakerphone button and a microphone mute button. The last button is very nice in that it lets you remain in the call while using other features of your iPhone. In these two screenshots you can see that I could access our Messenger chat and also go back to my main iPhone screen to launch other applications. I can always tap the bar at the top to return to Messenger and the controls to our voice conversation:

Facebook voice 5 Facebook voice 6

The voice quality during the conversation was outstanding. It was crystal clear and rich enough that we knew it was some kind of HD voice codec being used.

All in all it was an excellent experience.

The Big, Huge Caveat

So what's the problem? Well... the reality is that right now trying to find someone to call is a struggle!

Going down through my contacts in the Messenger app was an exercise in futility. Person after person after person had the "Free Call" button greyed out:

Facebook voice 9

Here's the fundamental problem:

You must be running the MESSENGER app on your iPhone!

It doesn't matter if you are running the Facebook application on your iPhone... you must be running Messenger.

And bizarrely there is no linkage between the two applications. If I am over in the Facebook application and go into a chat with Jim Courtney, notice that I have only the ability to "View Timeline":

Facebook voice 11

And of course you must have an iPhone or iPad. If you have an Android device or some other device you are out of luck right now.

So the only people you can use this with are other people running Messenger on iOS.

Presumably Facebook is assuming people will just keep Messenger running... but I know that I, for one, try to limit the number of apps I keep running on my iPhone for battery life reasons.

More fundamentally, I never have used the Messenger app for chatting with other friends in Facebook. The Facebook app already provides the ability to chat... so why would I use the Messenger app? (And I know Facebook focuses on the speed that you can get to sending messages... but that's not critical for me.)

Potential For Disruption?

Now if Facebook gets their act together and makes this more intuitive and ubiquitous, the potential is there for more serious disruption. If it can be integrated into the main Facebook app... and can work for Android as well as iOS... and can work for people outside the US and Canada... THEN we might see more people shifting voice calls over into Facebook's voice service.

The potential is certainly huge, given Facebook's massive size.

Until then... it's an interesting option to have available... but I just don't see many people using it.

What About The Technology Behind It?

My other natural question was to wonder what they are using for the technology behind their voice service. As The Verge pointed out, Facebook and Skype have had a partnership to deliver video calling within Facebook's website. Could this be another component of that partnership? Is it a partnership with another VoIP provider? Is it something homegrown?

For now, I haven't seen any details that help explain that, but I'll certainly be watching to see what we can learn.

UPDATE: A tweet from Aswath Rao pointed me to a TechCrunch article from earlier this month when Facebook rolled out free voice calling in Canada that indicates that the technology is NOT from Skype. Separately I asked a Skype representative if Skype was involved in today's rollout and received the simple answer of "no".


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Facebook Rolls Out VoIP In Canada on iOS!

FacebookToday, Facebook apparently began testing of true voice-over-IP (VoIP) calling from its iOS app for all Facebook users in Canada. If you have an iPhone and are in Canada, you can update to the latest version of the Facebook Messenger app and start making free phone calls to your friends on Facebook. Two articles have more details:

I was alerted to this by (appropriately) a Facebook post from Tris Hussey, author of the iPhone Hacks article.

Since I'm not in Canada, I can't test it myself... an update to the Messenger app for me will only get me the ability to leave "voice notes". But I'm looking forward to learning more from my friends in Canada.

If this rolls out to users outside of Canada, this has the potential to be huge and a major disruption to telecom. Yes, there is Skype on mobile phones, and a dozen other apps like Viber and Voxer, but...

... Facebook has the directory and the eyeballs!

You have your friend connections already in Facebook. Plus, people are already spending a significant amount of time in the Facebook app. This just makes it simple to move into real-time communications with someone.

I'm looking forward to learning more from friends up north... and to hopefully trying it out at some point!

UPDATE: Here's the iOS update message for Facebook Messenger:

Facebook v2 1 iphone

So the way I read that, we should all be getting this capability in the next few weeks.


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