Facebook today will wage its war against your phone’s “phone” application on a new front with an update to Messenger For Android that adds VoIP calling for Canadians. It’s also improving group messaging. By combining voice-over-data calling with unified instant, asynchronous, and email messaging, Facebook could dominate communication in the developing world.
Here’s why this war is worth it. Facebook’s mission to connect the world breaks down into two channels: 1) public and semi-public posting to your profile and the news feed, and 2) private communication. It already hosts a lot of both of those stacks. The big parts that remain out of its grasp are serious email and short-form public publishing like Twitter, SMS and voice.
Facebook already has a band-aid email system built on @facebook.com; Subscribe and public status updates to challenge Twitter; and data-based Messenger to take on SMS. What was missing was voice. Typically connected over cellular and landline connections, old-fashioned voice calling is an expensive, outdated but essential part of how people communicate with their friends and family.
Facebook wants to own it.
Facebook first began testing VoIP in January. If you did your voice calling through Facebook’s open-source-based voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system it’s building into its smartphone apps, the social network would learn a lot more about who you’re closest to. There’s value to users, too, as having voice calling collected with chat and Facebook messages provides a less schizophrenic view of conversations.
But the real play here is eventually using free VoIP to lure users in emerging international markets. Facebook is depending on growth in places like India, Brazil, and Singapore now that it has saturated spots like the United States and the UK.
Right now, many people in emerging markets buy pre-paid minutes for voice calling, but are starting to buy data plans to access email, the web, and Facebook. What if Facebook could minimize the voice minutes these users have to buy by offering VoIP that’s free beyond the cost of data usage? Suddenly Facebook goes from a nice way to connect with friends to a critical communication service that saves them money.
To get there, Facebook needs to see how people use VoIP and learn how to scale it, so it’s starting in its core markets. With today’s Facebook Messenger for Android update, Canadians can VoIP call anyone else with Facebook’s voice calling feature, which includes U.S. iOS users plus iOS and Android users in Canada. The update also makes it easier to group messages by showing group conversations in the sidebar, letting you title group convos, and allowing search of group convos by title or the names of participants.
Facebook is known for rapid development of incremental product updates, but less for long-term research and development. The VoIP initiative shows it has the foresight to plan years in advance for when the developing world is smartphone and data plan-equipped, and old-school voice calling is ready to die.
Facebook Messenger For Android can be downloaded from Google Play