Virtually overnight, Facebook is becoming a potential phone network for the 750 million people who use the social network.
That's a lot of people – more than double the population of the United States.
They already share their photos and text their personal details over Facebook. Now users of the network, thanks to its partnership with Internet phone leader Skype, will find that a free video call to a friend is just a point and click away.
Facebook, in effect, looks set to become a de facto phone company. That's the case even though it doesn't own wires or cell towers. And it's part of a broader push by Internet companies – including also Google – to lure more phone traffic away from traditional carriers and onto the Web.
The announcement Wednesday by Facebook, in fact, comes as Google has just launched its own rival social-network service, with video calls as a central attraction. Although the new "Google+" service can't boast the huge base of current users, it offers some capability that Facebook lacks – notably linking more than two people for a call.
Together, these moves are an important milestone for online telephony.
It's not that Facebook is really poised to supplant traditional phone companies. After all, millions of users will still be paying the likes of Verizon for traditional phone service and often for their access to the Internet. So if someone doesn't pay her Verizon bill for a Web connection, then she won't be able to make that Skype call over Facebook.
What's true, though, is that suddenly video chat over the Web is easier – and getting more publicity.
"Video chat has been around for years now, but it's still not an everyday activity for most people. Sometimes it's too difficult to set up, or the friends you want to talk to are on different services," Facebook engineer Philip Su wrote on the company website Wednesday. So "it's particularly exciting to bring video calling to over 750 million people."
The service will be available to all users "over the next few weeks," Mr. Su said, and his blog post offered a link for people who don't want to wait.
By contrast, the Google+ service (the plus sign is the symbol that Google is using as its version of Facebook's "like" button) is currently available only to a select group of early testers.
Even if the timing is coincidental, the news from Facebook stomped to some extent efforts by Google to build buzz about its own service. The two Silicon Valley firms have become archrivals, with Google having deep pockets and a desire to become a big player in social networking, and Facebook enjoying the advantage of its big base of loyal users.
Still, Google+ is getting its share of positive press, while reviewers have criticized some elements of Facebook's new service.
Google already offered users of its Gmail service the ability to do video calls. Now the Google+ service adds a new twist called "hangout," by which you can reveal to friends when you're available to chat. And group calls can include as many as 10 people.
Some reviewers of both services give Facebook the edge simply because of its existing pool of customers (more "friends" within reach of a typical user). Then again, that same fact could turn some Web users toward Google for video chats, precisely because they'd rather not open the door to online calls from all their Facebook friends.
Expect more chapters in the rivalry over video calling. It would make sense for Facebook and Skype to promote their own version of group video, for example, some analysts say.
And the rivals will also try to push video calls onto smart phones.
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