Facebook's next messaging move is all about voice. Today it released an update for its standalone Messenger for iOS and Android apps that lets users send up to one-minute voice messages. It's also testing open source VoIP calling between Canadian iOS Messenger users that runs over a user's existing data plan. Both power hands-free communication between friends, which helps drivers and reduces mobile typing.
The updates to the apps should be available in the app stores later today.
Most people hate voicemail so it may seem curious that Facebook is adding voice messaging to Messenger. Even with visual voice mail, many say they simply never listen to their cell phone's answering machine. But most voicemail is just a longwinded way of saying “call me back.” Facebook sees a new opportunity in making voice messaging a seamless part of a conversation, not a replacement or a bridge to it.
With voice messaging in Messenger, you open a conversation (new or existing) and are shown a red “record” button. Similar to Facebook Poke's video recording interface, you press and hold the button, talk or record a sound up to one minute in length, and then release the button to stop recording. You can then send the audio message, which appears in the conversation stream as a little wave form that can be listened to. Voice messages will also be available for listening from the web interface.
There are several use cases for audio messaging that text and photos in Messenger can't cover. For example, if you're driving, you could record a voice message hands-free to comply with the law but still communicate asynchronously. Sometimes you have to send someone a long message like a complicated set of instructions or driving directions that would be a pain to type. Now you can ramble them off into Messenger.
[Update: After a little hands on, I think the voice messaging works well. The interface is responsive, audio quality is decent, voice recordings are delivered quickly, and they're instantly available to listen on the web.]
Voice messaging could also be popular for things other than voice. You might record the sound of the lapping waves at the beach, or a clip of a concert. Kids without cellular or data plans might enjoy voice messaging within Facebook instead of having to use third-party apps, such as WhatsApp or Voxer. Voice messaging probably won't get used too frequently, but it's a nice addition that makes Facebook Messenger an even more complete app.
Soon I'd expect video messaging to be added. Facebook tells me it has no plans to add voice messaging to its website, as its focus right now is entirely on mobile.
Facebook is beginning to test VoIP audio calling in Canada to see if it should bring the feature to the U.S. and perhaps the rest of the world. Canada closely resembles the United States in demographics and usage trends, but is one-tenth the size, making it a smart testing ground. If it gains traction, Facebook will work on how to scale it for a bigger audience and would probably roll it out in the U.S. next, and possibly the web interface.
For now, though, only Canadian users of the latest version of Facebook Messenger for iOS can try VoIP. People can't VoIP call Android users or people outside of Canada. The feature is a bit buried. Users have to click the “i” icon in the top right of a conversation to reveal a “Free Call” button. It's not entirely free, though. It will burn data on a user's existing carrier plan.
The new VoIP test is not built on Facebook's existing Skype partnership which powered a briefly available limited test of voice calling on Facebook's desktop site in January 2011. This indicates somewhat icier relations between Facebook and Skype's owner Microsoft, which also powers a Bing search integration and display ads on Facebook. If the trend continues, Facebook might also look elsewhere for help with search.
Voice Messaging and VoIP could also be seen as Facebook taking on the default calling app on smartphones. Facebook wants to own social, and that means a lot more than the news feed and profile. Knowing who you're close enough with to send voice recordings and calls helps it refine its relevancy-sorted content streams, too. If Facebook has its way, eventually you'd only use it for friend-to-friend communication. And with it now showing ads around the web inbox, starting to charge users to contact strangers, and more potential monetization around messages, it makes sense that Facebook wants to kill the phone part of the smartphone