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Facebook unveils video chat with Skype

Facebook is partnering with Skype to offer its 750 million users the ability to have live video chats with one another for free.

July 07, 2011|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, left, watches a demonstration of the new Skype video chat feature during a news conference at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, left, watches a demonstration of the new… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)

Reporting from Palo Alto — In a bid to become the hub of communication on the Web, Facebook, the world's largest social network, is partnering with Skype to offer its 750 million users the ability to have live video chats with one another for free.

The video calling feature, which became available on Wednesday, is likely to prompt many Facebook users to spend more time online and even less time on the phone.

"We're using the best technology out there for video chat with the best social technology," Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said during a news conference Wednesday at the company's Palo Alto headquarters.

The move intensifies the already heated rivalry with Internet search giant Google Inc., which last week launched its own social networking service, called Google+. It includes a video chat feature for as many as 10 people called Hangouts. Google also offers Web calls through its email service Gmail.

Apple Inc. added a video chat feature to the iPhone a year ago.

For its part, Facebook touted the ease of use of the new Skype feature, which with just one click allows one-on-one video chat.

"This is by far the easiest way to get connected by video," Facebook engineer Philip Su said as he detailed how it worked at Wednesday's news conference. "If it were any easier than this one click, it would be reading your mind."

But Facebook will have to make the feature available on mobile phones and expand to group video chats to counter rising competition from Google and others, analysts said.

"Google+ is still differentiated by its group video chat feature," said Greg Sterling, an editor with SearchEngineLand.com. "But this does steal some of Google's thunder."

Skype, which allows users to make Internet phone calls and video calls free but charges for calls to land-line or mobile phones, is taking a calculated risk to expand its user base, Gartner Research analyst Ray Valdes said.

Zuckerberg said Wednesday that Facebook had surpassed 750 million users, up from about 600 million at the beginning of the year.

Getting access to that vast network of users could boost Skype, which has about 170 million regular users.

Skype is also exploring the possibility of launching paid services on Facebook, said Skype CEO Tony Bates, who appeared alongside Zuckerberg at the news conference. One such premium feature might be the ability to call any phone while on Facebook.

Facebook began holding talks with Skype about an integration last year, Zuckerberg said. In October Skype added voice calling between Facebook friends. Last month it also added a Facebook contacts tab to let Skype users send instant messages to their Facebook friends and comment on their friends' status without leaving Skype.

Microsoft Corp., a longtime Facebook partner that invested $240 million for a small stake in the company in 2007 and sells ads on the social network, is buying Skype in an $8.5-billion deal expected to close this year. The world's largest software company has been battling Google with its Bing search engine and cloud computing services. Microsoft is hoping that Skype will help give it a stronger position in online communications.

Analysts said the Skype acquisition also would solidify Microsoft's partnership with Facebook, which is valued at more than $70 billion on private trading exchanges and is expected to go public next year.

One-tenth of the world's population is now using Facebook. But its explosive growth has begun to slow as Facebook hits critical mass and competition in social networking heats up.

The company is now emphasizing not how many users it has but how engaged they are on the site.

Zuckerberg said Wednesday that 4 billion "things" were shared every day on Facebook and that he expected that number to double every year.

Facebook, he said, is focused on striking partnerships and building services that increase sharing on the site.

Also Wednesday, Facebook announced that users can now have group conversations on its instant messaging service.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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