Facebook's new video chat has rival in Google+ By Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY
Video calling isn't exactly new technology. But it is new to Facebook, and is also perhaps the most compelling feature in Google's upstart Google+ social network. Today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg brings video calling to the world's largest social network, made possible through a partnership with Skype. Personal Tech
By Edward C. Baig
Facebook - The new video calling feature inside Facebook lets you see and be seen.
The new video calling feature inside Facebook lets you see and be seen.
Facebook will be rolling out the see-and-be-seen feature to its 750 million members over the next few weeks. I got to partake early.
Meanwhile, on Google+, Facebook's promising new social networking rival (which is currently in an invitation-only phase), you can engage in spontaneous video chat as I did by announcing to your circle of friends, acquaintances and followers that you are virtually hanging out.
This "hangout" feature gives Google a crucial early advantage over Facebook, at least when it comes to video calling. That's because Google+ permits group video chat while Facebook video calling is a one on one PC-to-PC affair. "While the one-to-one features are ideal for intimate discussions they must quickly offer group video chat features to compete with Google's Hangout," says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst with Altimeter Group.
Of course, video calling alone won't change the reality of the social networking order: Google hasn't exactly knocked it out of the park with its earlier social networking efforts (read Orkut, Buzz, Wave) while it may seem practically everybody you've ever known frequents Facebook.
Though I experienced a few pre-launch snags testing Facebook's video-calling feature, it is pretty simple to take the logical next step when chatting up a friend. "It's a completely casual but awesome exchange," says Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's director of product engineering—whether you are schmoozing via video with an old classmate, distant relative, potential new flame or a loved one stationed overseas. It's likely a more serendipitous exchange than, say, a planned Skype call.
The very first time you try and place a video call on Facebook—by clicking on the tiny camera icon inside a chat window—you are asked to complete a one-time set-up requesting permission to download an "applet" or plug-in, essentially a shrunk down version of the Skype software you might have otherwise installed on your computer. You don't have to install any other software, and this additional step isn't required on subsequent calls, even if it is your maiden call to a new person. Both parties do have to have Facebook open and have chat enabled.
Call quality based on my limited tests with Facebook and Skype representatives, and a couple of friends, was very good. I was using a Mac; the persons on the other end were using Macs and PCs.
You can take a call full-screen, and see your own mug in a smaller window. When someone calls you, a window appears on top of whatever you're doing in Facebook; you can click to answer or ignore the call. If a person that you are calling is offline, you can record a video message they can play back later, though the controls on the window that appears when you want to record such a message are confusing.
Facebook aims to spread its video-calling feature virally across its vast membership ranks. Once you complete a call with someone, they in turn can call others.
But there are limits. Though calls are handled through Skype's own peer-to-peer networking technology, you can't make calls outside of Facebook to Skype contacts, even if you have Skype software loaded on your computer. Facebook video calling is strictly Facebook friend to Facebook friend. And you can't call Facebook members who are not your friends.
Moreover, that friend-to-friend video call must take place computer to computer. You can't make or receive a Facebook video call to or from a mobile phone, at least not yet. Mobile video is of course possible through certain Skype apps or, say, using Apple's FaceTime video. Mobile is "a totally reasonable place for us to go," Bosworth tells me.
Once on a call, you can't turn off the video and make it an audio-only call as is possible on other services. And while you can tell your chat buddies that you are "offline" and unable to accept a call there aren't specific privacy controls in place that would let you cherry-pick who can call you via video and who cannot—you'd have to un-friend somebody to prevent them from calling.
You also can't share files during a call or have both of you watch, say, a You Tube
video. I also hit a few technical snags—a plug-in crash in Safari, video that froze while I left a message, software that was "temporarily unavailable."
Though mum on specifics, Skype exec Neil Stevens
says the Facebook deal will eventually involve mobile and landline minutes.
The timing is apparently coincidental, but Facebook's video launch comes shortly after the Google+ debut. My first impressions of Google+ are positive, though it's still very early and membership is quite limited. Google+ is built around the conceit of "circles," groups of friends who fit one or more categories, circles for family, work, people you are following and so on. The idea is you can share stuff with one circle of intimates that you would be totally embarrassed to share with another group.
I find the group video chat with up to 10 people who show up when you announce a hangout intriguing. And you can also be in hangout session while watching YouTube video. But one of the two colleagues I hung out with simultaneously encountered some microphone and sound issues.
One word of advice: pay attention to the light on your computer indicating your webcam sees and hear you. I learned the hard way. I had initiated a hangout session when my regular phone rang. As I spoke on the phone I was unaware that a friend dropped in on my hangout. He saw me and heard every word I made on the regular call.