Conference calls - inside of Facebook? And for free?
Yes... courtesy of the folks up at Ottawa-based startup Iotum. As I've written before, there are tons of applications being developed for Facebook, but there haven't been a whole lot of voice applications and there have been even fewer (in fact, almost none) voice-over-IP (VoIP) applications. Of the existing voice apps (nicely listed by Pat Phelan), most of them are really what I'll call "consumer" apps... primarily focused on cheaper phone calls or making it easier to call people. Or "calling" other Facebook users - or leaving them voicemail. But there haven't really yet been any interesting apps I've seen that could provide business features.
Until now. The team at Iotum just released their "Free Conference Call" Facebook application and now allowed anyone to install it. Until now, it's been in a very limited test phase, but after Alec issued his request for volunteers last Friday, I naturally had to give it a try (and he asked us not to write about it until today).
So here's the process. After you've installed the app, you have to go through a brief authentication process to put your mobile phone number on file with the app. Basically, the app sends your mobile number a text message with a verification code. You then enter the verification code and your number is put on file with the app.
Creating a conf call is then a simple process. Click a link and then fill in the relevant time/date fields (which can be basically right away) and then choose whether this is a private conf call or should be listed in the public directory (click on image for larger view):
Since the app is still in test mode, there weren't really any public calls to see and I just tried it out with private calls. The next step is to invite recipients, a process that is made very easy by having a search box in the upper right side that lets you easily search through your Facebook friends (click for larger image):
Note that there is the capability to "Invite Friends who are not on Facebook", although this functionality is still in development. The basic idea is that that person could receive an email with dial-in instructions. In the end, you have a conf call page listing the various participants (in this case only one) and you have the ability to send invitations out:
When you send the invitation out, it goes out in typical Facebook fashion to the user's Facebook account where the user is then given the choice to RSVP or Ignore the invitation:
In the end, you press "Finish and View" and wind up with a page like this:
It has the typical type of info you would expect for a conference call. A place to add an agenda (although this was still being developed), list of attendees, etc. Once the call is underway, the portion at the bottom fills in to show the pictures of the participants who are on the call, with the participants in green when the call is underway and red when they are disconnected from the conference bridge:
I'll note that the images took a very long time to load on my PC (in fact, they never loaded in one of my browsers) but this is clearly a bug they are very aware of and working on fixing. For Alec, the images loaded quickly (and he said it had nothing to do with him being on Iotum's network because all traffic is proxied through Facebook).
Alec indicates that the plan is to highlight the people currently talking, etc. He also says that over time they expect to add more functionality like a "Wall" capability where you could write notes during a call. In my brief testing I was able to create both an immediate conf call (by simply scheduling the call for the time it was right then) and also a scheduled call.
Regarding the scheduled call, back on my "Conference Call" application page inside of Facebook, I have a nice view of upcoming conference calls, a tab for past conferece calls and a tab for public conference calls (none currently listed):
The link to create a new conf call is up in the upper left. Once the time came for the call, I got a red bar across the top that said "ACTIVE CALL" indicating that one of my conf calls was in session.
The call itself was rather straightforward. I simply dialed into the conf call bridge (a number in Minnesota) and, because my Caller ID matched that of the number on file for my mobile, I was put directly into the appropriate conference call. Had I called in from another line, I would have needed to provide my mobile number as the "PIN" to get me into the conf call (which may also be the case with some mobile providers that don't send appropriate Caller ID). I'm not entirely sure how comfortable I am with relying on Caller ID to get you into the conference calls (since, wearing my security hat, I know how easily it can be spoofed), but when it works (as it did for me) it does get you in there easily. Alec said they will soon be sending out a text message prior to the call with the dial-in number, which would make it easier for mobile users to simply dial the number in the text message, and also serves as a useful reminder.
All-in-all, it seemed like a nice very basic conferencing system. Not yet as full-featured as any of the regular conf call systems out there available for businesses (Full disclosure: My employer makes such a system.), but it's probably "good enough" for many people and more importantly, it's integrated with Facebook. Yet to be seen is how well it really scales... and what, if any, security exposures are out there, but those type of things will appear over time. It's a new app and, again, it's integrated with Facebook. There's also the detail that it only has a North American phone number, but again, this is just its initial launch.
I had two questions for Alec: 1) Why a conferencing app from Iotum? What does this have to do with their "Relevance Engine"? and 2) What is the business case? How is he providing the free conference calls?
On the Iotum connection, Alec freely admits that launching the conferencing app now is mostly about time-to-market and getting out there first with a conferencing app. Having said that, Alec is very clear that iotum's plan is to add in their presence features over time and also integrate this app with their Talk-Now app for Blackberries. Adding a "social networking" component to their products was always on their roadmap, but the launch of the Facebook platform allowed them to accelerate those plans. For right now, Alec definitely sees how red-hot the interest in Facebook is and is quite obviously seizing the opportunity to ride that wave. (And the beautiful thing about being CEO of a startup is that he can easily adjust and do this.)
On the money side of things, Alec indicates he's funding the free conf calls in part through sharing termination revenue with the LEC hosting the conference bridge and also through ad-supported SMS messages.
So in the end, Facebook now gets a conference calling application. Give it a try. I would expect that it will actually be the first of many such apps, but Iotum is now first out there with a working app. From my perspective, it's good to see an useful business app out there for Facebook, in whatever form. Kudos to Alec and team - and I look forward to seeing what it evolves into.
(Meanwhile, I'm still waiting to see a true VoIP app for Facebook (that does more than just calls between FB users) .... )