Facebook Announces New Design, In-Browser Video Chat With Skype

The new Facebook chat integrates Skype for video conferencing. Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com

PALO ALTO, California — Facebook unveiled three new products at its headquarters here Wednesday: video calling, group chat and a new design to its chat system.

In a major partnership with Skype, Facebook now offers free video calling between connected users of the site. Beginning Wednesday, a “call” button can be found in the top right-hand corner of each user’s Facebook page. After clicking on the button, the video chat window launches on your Facebook page, inside of your browser window.

“Think of this simply as a mini-Skype client,” said Skype CEO Tony Bates during the announcement. “One that’s obviously embedded in a very attractive way.”

The group chat announcement comes as an add-on to Facebook’s already existing chat function. When chatting with a friend on your Facebook page, a button allows you to add other friends of yours to the chat.

Finally, the company redesigned the chat window, so your friends list can now vary in size relative to your browser window. A list of friends who are online will appear, as well as those who are offline that you message with the most.

The video chat announcement — obviously the star of the show — comes as a competitive jab to Silicon Valley media giants Google and Apple. Apple introduced its FaceTime video chatting protocol in 2010, available for Macs, iPhones and iPads. And Google last week launched its brand-new social networking site Google+. Facebook, Apple and Google’s intentions are clear: to lure customers into their media ecosystems with the hippest social networking tools.

Google’s social network launched with “Hangouts,” a group video chat tool, which can host up to 10 users in a video conference. By contrast, Facebook’s offering with Skype does not offer a group chat version.

“Today we’re doing one-on-one,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, when asked about a possible group chat addition. “The companies [Skype and Facebook] have been working together for a while.”

Google and Facebook have been in especially fierce competition with each other over the past year, competing for engineering talent. In May, the Daily Beast revealed a Facebook-led smear campaign against Google in unflattering detail.

But Facebook isn’t talking much about Google today. When asked what he thought about the competing company’s social service, Zuckerberg was tight-lipped: “I’m not gonna say a lot about Google.” Though he did reference Google implicitly as one of “a lot of companies entering the social space.” In other words, Facebook did social first, and Google and co. are now hopping on the bandwagon as it takes off.

Speculation on today’s announcement ran high on the mobile arena. The New York Times reported that the first official Facebook iPad app was in the works.

But mobile news was scant at the conference today, nor was a Facebook iPad app among the announcements. “Video calling isn’t live for mobile yet,” Zuckerberg said, though he hinted at more to come. “It’s the beginning of launch season, 2011.”

Google+ launched with an accompanying Android mobile application for handheld devices; the iOS app is reportedly waiting for Apple’s App Store approval. Nearly two years ago to the day, Facebook launched its iPhone app. The app is also available for the iPod Touch and Android phones. Yet still no tablet-optimized versions created by Facebook itself have been previously released (both RIM and HP developed their own versions for the BlackBerry PlayBook and TouchPad, respectively).

As of today, Facebook hosts 750 million active users, according to Zuckerberg.


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