Facebook Messenger Launches Free VOIP Video Calls Over Cellular And Wi-Fi
It’s not polite to call someone out of the blue anymore. Best to text them first. That’s why Facebook thinks video calling will live naturally inside Messenger. Today, Messenger is launching free VOIP video calling over cellular and wifi connections on iOS and Android in the U.S., Canada, UK, and 15 other countries.
Facebook’s goal is to connect people face to face no matter where they are or what mobile connection they have. With Messenger, someone on a new iPhone with strong LTE in San Francisco could video chat with someone on a low-end Android with a few bars of 3G in Nigeria.
Here’s a quick video from Facebook showing Messenger video calls in action:
Facebook first introduced desktop video calling in partnership with Skype in 2011, but eventually built its own video call infrastructure. Bringing it to mobile could Messenger a serious competitor to iOS-only FaceTime, clunky Skype, and less-ubiquitous Google Hangouts.
With 600 million Messenger users and 1.44 billion on Facebook, the new VOIP video feature has a massive built-in audience. Mark Zuckerberg said on last week’s Facebook earnings call that Messenger already accounts for 10% of global mobile VOIP calls. He believes free, high audio quality VOIP will displace traditional phone calling, and video calling could accelerate that.
Messenger has no plans to charge for audio or video calling. Instead, it knows more messaging drives lock in with Facebook’s News Feed where it makes tons of money from ads. Facebook Messenger’s Head Of Product Stan Chudnovsky who led the video calling feature tells me, “Whatever’s good for Messenger is good for Facebook as a company.”
Video calling in Messenger will become available today for iOS and Android users in Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Laos, Lithuania, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Uruguay. More regions will be added in the coming months.
If you have access, you’ll see the video camera icon in the top right corner when you’re having a Messenger chat with a friend who can be called. Tapping it starts a video call, which opens when the recipient accepts. Cameras start in selfie mode but you can toggle to the backside camera to show a friend what you’re doing.
Messenger will adjust the quality of the call according to your connection. The demo I saw showed just a hint of pixelation and strong frame rate with 2 bars of LTE service in SF. It’s easy to switch to just VOIP audio, and Facebook will gracefully notify you if the connection weakens to where video won’t work. It’s all free on Facebook’s side, and users will only be charged for data use by their mobile operator, which they can avoid by using Wi-Fi.
One smart thing Messenger allows is for one person to turn off their video feed to make the other person’s high quality. This way if you’re sitting at home and a friend is on a mountain in Norway, you can give them the extra bandwidth because what matters is seeing their scenery, not them seeing your bedroom.
This is v1, though, and Chudnovsky said the Messenger team was working on a bunch of secondary features I asked about, including group video calling and video stabilization. “Group video calling is definitely a use case that a lot of our people might be interested in at some point…[and] it would be a big deal if the whole [shakes hand to simulate lack of video stabilization] thing goes away.” Those could help Messenger compete with Google’s Hangouts, which is filled with bells and whistles.
Perhaps the most glaring omission for now is that mobile Messenger users can’t video call with desktop Facebook users, but Chudnovsky says that should be patched relatively soon. On mobile, he thinks video calling in Messenger will be much more convenient than having to either video call someone suddenly, or switch apps. “You don’t have to close it, go to another app, launch that app, connect with them in that other app, and then finally starting the call with brain damage from how you’re actually doing it.”
Overall, Messenger’s voice and video quality were strong despite an imperfect mobile connection. And since everyone you know is probably already on Facebook and connected to you, and you can easily find new contacts there, Messenger could take the hassle out of simulating a face-to-face conversation.