Microsoft's Best Answer to Google+ Might be Facebook

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-07-07

Microsoft's Best Answer to Google+ Might be Facebook

The announcement by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on July 6 that Facebook will be launching a new video chat capability using Skype was interesting on several levels. Perhaps the most interesting is that it appears to be a quick turnaround reaction to Google+, a new social networking service launched the previous week.

Google+ has been described as "Facebook without the annoyances." And to some extent that's correct. On Facebook you either have people who are friends or have people who aren't friends and with whom you have no interaction unless you become friends. Of course, there are other options such as fan pages, etc. But the choices are pretty limited.

With Google+ (or G+ as it's being called now), you divide people you connect with into circles. You can use the premade circles such as "Friends" and "Acquaintances," or you can create circles with your choice of names. For example, I could create a circle called "eWEEK Editors" and then gather these people into that circle. The idea is that what you say to one circle stays there. Your acquaintances can't see what happens in your Friends circle.

This avoids the problem of prospective employers seeing what goes on inside your Friends circle. But the Google concept goes farther. You can follow people in much the same way you can on Twitter, and you will get to see whatever comments they have for public consumption. You can block people from following you, and you can converse with people in instant messages or with video chats. This is called Hanging Out, but it's really a multiuser video chat service. You can converse with up to 10 people at one time.

It's pretty clear that Facebook's big announcement of a connection to Skype was in response to Google's capability, and it's also clear that the Facebook team knows just what Google is doing with this. After all, Mark Zuckerberg and several other Facebook executives are members of G+. But this isn't the first connection between Facebook and Skype. Skype users have already been able to connect their Skype accounts to their Facebook Friends lists, and they've been able to instant message their Facebook friends from the Skype IM interface.

So now, once the capability is actually available to everyone, you'll be able to do video chats with Skype users. But even with this, G+ is already ahead. Skype through Facebook is a one-to-one connection. G+ is many-to-many. With Google Plus you can have a real group conversation.

Facebook-Skype Video Gives Microsoft Upsale Opportunity


Where does Microsoft come in to all of this? Well, Microsoft is about to buy Skype. Once that happens, Facebook's video chat capability will depend on Microsoft. If this capability becomes important and especially if Microsoft extends the group video chat capability it's been developing to Skype, then it could hold a key to Facebook's continued ability to compete with G+ in terms of instant communications.

Now consider that Microsoft is already an investor in Facebook. Does this mean that Microsoft is already subsuming Facebook, partly from within and partly by controlling part of its interface to the outside world? It's never easy to know for sure what Microsoft executives are thinking. But the company obviously has its sights set on Google. Bing, the Microsoft search engine, provides search results to Facebook and competes with Google. Office 365 is clearly intended to compete head to head with Google Apps for Business. Why wouldn't Microsoft be looking for a way to counter Google's move into the social media?

But does this mean that Facebook will slowly become a Microsoft service in the same sort of way the MSN instant messaging client (now Windows Live Messenger) was designed to counter AOL's Instant Messenger? The answer is probably not. At this point at least Facebook doesn't offer Microsoft enough capability to justify the investment. Besides, there are many indications that Facebook's rise may have already peaked. Why would Microsoft want to ride a falling star?

But that doesn't mean that Microsoft wouldn't welcome a flood of new customers for its paid services. On Skype, it's the computer-to-computer calls that are free. For access to wireline and wireless phones, you need to pay. And while Skype is a seriously cheap means of making calls to phones, it's still money. Microsoft likes money, and not only because its stockholders insist on money.

If Microsoft can make the Facebook-Skype tie-in more than just another way to access Skype, then Microsoft, Skype and Facebook can provide a rational alternative to G+ and its video chats. But to do that, it has to compete with a lot more than Zuckerberg brought to the table during his Skype announcement. The new offering has to be at least as good as what G+ gives you and a little better in some ways if Facebook-Skype-Microsoft is going to provide real competition and a real alternative. Right now, it looks more like a desperation play by Facebook, which responded to the buzz surrounding Google+ by hastily implementing a borrowed video chat capability that Facebook by itself can only dream about.

Note: You can follow Wayne Rash on Google Plus. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way and follow him on Twitter as @wrash. 

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