Facebook Messenger now allows iPhone users to make calls to other iPhone users for free via WiFi, as the company continues to provide its users with new ways to reach out to their friends.
The new feature was launched Jan. 16 without any fanfare or announcement, according to a report by The Verge. The new capability is available to users in the United States following an apparently successful test of the service in Canada earlier this month.
Users of Facebook Messenger for iPhone will now see an “i” button on the top right of their app that when tapped offers the option to make a “Free Call” to another iPhone user using the service.
“Facebook has confirmed to The Verge that the feature began rolling out to U.S. users today, and requires no update through the App Store,” said the report.
The service means that users can essentially avoid using their available minutes through their carrier’s cell phone plans. If WiFi isn’t available, users can make the calls applying their phone carrier’s data plans, according to the article.
The Facebook Messenger app for iPhone can be downloaded free from the Apple Store.
The benefits of the new service are intriguing because users can save their calling minutes under their cell phone plans and also can use WiFi calling when local cellular networks don’t provide adequate service.
Facebook didn’t immediately reply to an email inquiry from eWEEK asking about the new service. It’s not known if the company will also be rolling out similar services for users of Android and other mobile platforms.
This isn’t the first time that Facebook has reached out to expand its calling services. In July 2011, Facebook partnered with Skype to offer free built-in video chat through Facebook that allows users to talk and view each other on video during Facebook sessions.
Dan Maycock, a mobile analyst with Slalom Consulting, said the new Facebook iPhone to iPhone service comes as the company continues to work to grow its presence in the mobile marketplace.
What’s particularly interesting, Maycock told eWEEK, is that the move raises questions about rumors that have swirled about Facebook eventually launching its own smartphones to consumers. By launching the calling capabilities inside Facebook Messenger, one would have to wonder what the company would gain if it did eventually bring out smartphones, he said.
“This could be a precursor to a Facebook phone or it could be that there is not going to be a Facebook phone because of these kinds of capabilities,” said Maycock. “This could be a pretty significant mobile play for Facebook.”
Facebook Messenger Adds Free WiFi Calls for iPhone Users: Report
Jonathan Yarmis, principal analyst at Yarmis Group, said the new Facebook calling capabilities are ultimately predictable.
“From the perspective of their grand vision, it is about connecting people,” said Yarmis. “They’ve been expanding the text-messaging capabilities of Facebook, so expanding it now to voice is a natural extension.”
At the same time, because competitors are always adding features, Facebook has to stay agile, he said. “Offensively, it makes sense,” and defensively, Facebook has similar services from Microsoft’s Skype to contend with, he said. “If you want to protect your flank, it makes sense.”
Facebook is in a way a victim of its own success, said Yarmis, because “at some level, what they’ve done is they’ve maxed out certain markets. As many Americans who want to be on Facebook are already on Facebook.”
That means that continuing to expand that user base is just getting harder and harder, he said. “So now what they need to do is to get existing users to spend more time with the platform. And this is a good one. It gives people yet another reason to go to Facebook.”
Another topic the new service also raises is how cell phone carriers will react to their users gaining the ability to make calls through Facebook without having to use their cell phone minutes, said Yarmis.
“It will be interesting to see how this plays out,” he said. “The voice question has always been a thorny one when it comes to the carriers. On one hand, they don’t mind terribly at times to off-load some cellular traffic off of their networks. On the other hand, they still make money selling voice time. It’s an interesting yin and yang. It depends upon how it gets implemented or used. Carriers are either going to tolerate it or hate it.”
The Facebook Messenger app arrived for iPhone and Android in August 2011 when Facebook launched the service to provide one-to-one and group messaging for both platforms.
Messenger is an extension of Facebook Messages for the desktop, so each text, chat, email and message a user sends exists in one place within the app and is also saved as part of any ongoing conversations on Facebook.