Facebook Messenger now features free voice calls. Is this the Facebook Phone we’ve been looking for?

January 17, 2013
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Facebook Messenger

I wrote before that the proverbial Facebook Phone might actually be the smartphone you’re holding right now. It turns out that we might be closer to the real deal than I previously thought. While there were speculations before that Facebook’s Tuesday announcement could be for its own smartphone or phone platform, the media event was actually about Graph Search. Sure, having your personalized search using social streams and natural language is exciting enough, but recent developments might be more exciting to fans of good ol’ mobile telephony.

The Verge first broke out the story about Facebook Messenger supporting voice calls on the iPhone. This opens up big possibilities in how mobile telephone as we know it could change.

Facebook Messenger has gone through several improvements, including the addition of new voice-recording features, among others. But since Facebook partnered with Microsoft to for Skype integration, it was probably just the next logical step to integrate voice calling in its mobile app.

Why Facebook?

But even with Facebook launching voice calls on its mobile Messenger interface, it’s not entirely a new thing. Skype has a cross-platform VoIP application. Even the likes of Viber, LINE and new regional efforts KakaoTalk and WeChat offer cross-platform voice telephony and instant messaging. Why should Facebook Messenger be so special, when it does not even support group chatting?

The answer may be in numbers. Facebook does have a reported 1 billion active users, a big number of which access the social network through mobile devices. In comparison, other social networks and mobile messaging applications are islands of friends and contacts, and you may not be able to reach everyone on just a single platform. For instance, in my case my co-workers are on WeChat, and my relatives are on a mix of iMessage, Viber and BBM. Some of my friends use Viber, and a small number use Kik.

Obviously, everyone can be reached through SMS and regular cellular calls. But will Facebook be the other common denominator?

Should carriers worry?

If you consider the increasing trend towards unlimited voice calling, it seems carriers are aware that mobile telephony is fast-evolving. Gone are the days when they can charge exorbitant per-minute charges, because mobile usage is now increasingly moving toward data. As such, with Facebook Messenger supporting voice calls via WiFi and data, this is likely to eat into your 3G or LTE plan, so carriers are not likely to worry as long as they still have a reliable revenue stream from data usage.

The service currently works only within the U.S., though, but Facebook had been doing tests within the country plus Canada. And for the moment, it only works on iOS, although support for Android devices is likely to be coming soon. Inside a chat session, tap the “i” icon to bring up a contact’s profile page, and you will see a “free call” button if both of you use Messenger.

Do you find the new VoIP feature on Facebook Messenger interesting? Is it a compelling reason to use Facebook, even with privacy concerns? Is this the actual Facebook Phone that has been heralded by technology media and analysts?

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