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