Facebook is slowly beefing up the capabilities of its Messenger app as it moves to combat the rise of free messaging apps like Whatsapp, Viber and Line. Today it’s taking another baby step by expanding VoIP calling to U.K. users of its iOS app, following its initial test of the feature in Canada in January, which was soon followed by a U.S. rollout.
A Facebook spokeswoman said: “From today, VOIP calling for Facebook Messenger on iOS will go live in the UK. This means that you can call friends in Facebook Messenger for free by tapping the ‘I’ button in an individual conversation and then tapping ‘Free Call’.”
The spokeswoman confirmed the app doesn’t use Skype for the VoIP capability — as its web client does for video calling — rather she said it uses “open source technology”.
Some messaging apps — including Viber and Line — offer free messaging and VoIP capabilities in all the markets where they operate, so Facebook is having to do some catching up here.
The VoIP feature does not appear to have been added to Facebook Messenger’s U.K. app quite yet. The app store description flags up its free texting capability but does not yet mention free calls (see right). The app was last updated on March 7 to add updates to group conversations, among other unspecified updates and bug fixes.
The lines between messaging and social networking are arguably blurring as messaging apps add capabilities that enable users to share multimedia content with groups of friends, as well as letting them call and text individuals — thereby treading directly on traditional social networking territory. Both use cases (social sharing and pure messaging) make these apps a nascent threat to Facebook’s dominance since social networking is at its core all about messaging and sharing content with chosen friends.
Little wonder then that rumours swirling around late last year suggested Facebook wanted to buy Whatsapp — which in August 2012 was serving 10 billion messages per day to its users. In the event, there has been no acquisition. Instead, Facebook added VoIP calling to its Messenger app at the start of the year — something Whatsapp doesn’t (yet) offer — setting the stage for an epic messaging app face off.