Facebook launches voice services

07 Jan 2013

To kick off the new year, here’s the latest OTT "threat" to the telco business: voice messaging and VoIP for Facebook mobile apps.

Last Friday, Facebook updated its Messenger app for iOS and Android with a “record” button that allows users to record and post voice messages.

The same day, Facebook announced that it will begin beta testing a new VoIP calling feature within its iOS Messenger app (albeit only in Canada). The feature allows iOS users to call Facebook friends via Messenger.

According to TheAtlantic Wire, if VoIP on Facebook goes global, “it could let everyone replace their phone bills with Facebook calls over the Internet, for free... and forever.”

Well, let’s not get carried away. First of all, in this case, “everyone” would mean “everyone on Facebook who uses Facebook on their mobile phone and has a data plan capable of supporting VoIP”. Which isn’t all that many people, relatively speaking. As of September 2012, Facebook had 604 million mobile users, with around 470 million accessing Facebook via a smartphone app. That's a big number, but still a small percentage of the 3.2 billion mobile phone users globally.

Also, this isn’t really news in and of itself. Voice minutes have been a commodity for years, and pretty much every operator on Earth knows that data is where the money is – and that “everyone” will need a data plan to be able to use OTT voice anyway (except for the people who can make use of free Wi-Fi hot spots, of course).

What’s potentially more interesting is what Facebook VoIP will mean for rivals like Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s Facetime.

Essentially, every friend you have on Facebook is a potential phonebook contact. With Skype, you can search for friends already using Skype – otherwise you have to add phone numbers manually (although there are apps available to import contacts into Skype from various sources, such as Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo!, as well as your mobile phonebook). And Facetime only works with other iOS devices, whereas Facebook Messenger is OS-agnostic.

The difference is that Apple is fine with limiting its service to iOS, and Skype has years of experience. Facebook’s VoIP will be beta for some time, and it has to show it’s at least as reliable as Skype. Contacts and ease of use are all very well, but QoS/QoE is going to matter (and that could tie in with the ongoing question of operator partnerships as well).

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