It’s a feature that’s been rumored for quite a while, and it’s one that Facebook is putting a lot of weight behind. Now, whenever you browse to a friend’s profile, you’ll see a new button nestled between the ‘Message’ and ‘Poke’ buttons that says ‘Call’. Click that, the other user will see a popup asking if they want to accept a call, and you’ll be immediately connected (you’ll need to install a small plugin the first time you use the service).
You’ll also see video calling integrated into Facebook’s Chat product. Really, you can’t miss it — Facebook is launching a new chat sidebar today that by default it takes the entire right side of the screen, and the first time you click on any user you’ll see a prompt asking if you’d like to make your first video call. If you try to initiate a video call and the other user doesn’t respond, you’ll be prompted to send them a video message.
So why is this a big deal? Facebook emphasized the fact that users will not have to create new Skype accounts to make calls, and that this will allow users to call their friends and family with a very minimal amount of setup (the flow for installing the applet only took a few seconds).
Of course, this comes just a week after the launch of Google+, which includes a video chat feature called ‘Hangouts’. Facebook’s video chat doesn’t support group chats yet, but when asked if Facebook will be rolling out group video calling, Zuckerberg said not to rule anything out. He added that one-to-one calling makes up the vast majority of video calling.
Skype CEO Tony Bates took the stage to make a few comments. One important thing he noted: Skype is talking with Facebook about having some paid products available through the web format.
Update: Facebook engineer Philip Su has just published some notes on how the team built the feature.
He writes that Facebook is using different techniques to install the Skype plugin depending on what browser you’re using to help streamline the experience:
Installation Flows for Each Browser and OS
To make installation as easy as possible, we specifically customized the installation flow for each OS and browser combination. For instance, on Mac browsers with Java enabled, the installer is hosted entirely within the browser so that no additional clicks are required. We use a small bootstrap EXE in Windows browsers to minimize the initial download time and to manage installation permissions as seamlessly as possible. We also put the entire installation flow inline with the feature itself, instead of requiring a separate download and installation page, so that your call automatically continues once installation completes.
Also very cool: Facebook users are using Skype’s service anonymously.
Protecting User Identity
To ensure that you can make a call without needing a separate Skype account, Facebook connects to Skype’s secure REST APIs using encrypted user IDs to set up the necessary credentials. This opens up the possibility of video calling to users who might never have used Skype before, and makes the overall calling experience much simpler for everyone. While it would have been easier to give user IDs directly to Skype, we instead went to great lengths to make sure users are protected and anonymous on Skype’s service.