Group Chat on Facebook

Facebook continues to get some interesting utilities; this time, it's the ability to set up a conference call.

Since Facebook opened up its developer platform nearly a year ago, analysts have been asking when applications that derive some sort of business value will appear on the site, a departure from the digital sheep-throwing and electronic food fights.

Equals has taken the conversation a step further with Party Line, an application that lets Facebook users click a mouse button to invite their friends, colleagues and business associates to group chats, or conference calls on the phone.

In beta beginning Feb. 25, Party Line lets up to five users initiate an instantaneous group phone chat with minimal set-up and no dial-in numbers or pass codes to hunt down and enter into their desk or mobile phones.

The software eliminates the need for users to call multiple people at different numbers, Equals Founder and CEO Ajay Madhok told eWEEK Feb. 25.

Users of the application create a "Party Line" once, inviting a group of friends or colleagues to be involved. Once users accept the invite, the application can be accessed from Facebook or any mobile phone (via 1-877-4 Buzz Me) by either the creator or anyone on the Party Line through a "buzz now" button on Facebook.

Madhok said that when a user in the party line clicks on the Buzz Now button his or her phone rings and an automated message asks the user to wait while the application rings the other participants in the team. Eventually, everyone is on the phone, but unlike a conference call, none of them had to dial-in.

"By adding voice to social networking, we have created a non-trivial social networking utility," Madhok said. "This is not like throwing water at your friends [on Facebook]."

With a cap of five participants per group, the software is free. While the current iteration may be relegated to groups of golf buddies or Tupperware party friends, Madhok said he will soon offer a version of Party Line for business consumers.

Equals will eventually offer a version of the Party Line application through phone networks from AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The startup could then charge a few dollars per month for the application, which would be offered as an add-on to consumers voice and data plans.

The software is being promoted by Facebook application creator RockYou, which will help market Party Line to Facebook's 64 million-plus users.

There is no guarantee Party Line will be a smash hit the way Slide and the zombie applications have become famous on Facebook. But the opportunity for viral growth is undeniable.

IDC has said the social networking application market will grow to $428 million by 2009, establishing social networking as a new communications tool used by consumers and businesses alike.