When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched video chat powered by Skype July 6, pundits immediately took to shaming and flaming the company for launching the service one week after Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) launched its own social network to beta with its own video application.
Facebook, the world’s leading social network with 750 million users, took more than seven years to launch a proprietary video chat service it’s borrowing from a partner.
Google+ launched out of the gate with Hangouts, a cloud video conferencing platform built in-house using XMPP, Jingle and other real-time communications standards.
What’s more intriguing is the main difference between Facebook’s and Google’s services. Facebook video chat is merely one-to-one chat, with the company treating the tool as an accessory that is “still not an everyday activity for most people.”
Philip Su, an engineer on Facebook’s video calling team, explained that video chat can be too difficult to set up, or the friends users want to talk to are on different services.
These are valid points, but it’s clear Google either disagrees or is throwing Hangouts against the proverbial software wall to see if it will stick.
“With Google+ we wanted to make on-screen gatherings fun, fluid and serendipitous, so we created Hangouts,” explained Google Real-time Communications Tech Lead Justin Uberti on his personal blog. “By combining the casual meet-up with live multi-person video, Hangouts lets you stop by when you’re free, and spend time with your Circles.”
“The lack of a robust video chat solution has been a gaping hole for Facebook,” IDC analyst Irene Berlinsky told eWEEK. “It now adds a critical communication tool for its users, and will probably keep those users on its site for longer periods at a time.”
Berlinsky said that while the Facebook/Skype solution is standard video chat, Google’s Hangouts represents no less than a rethinking of what video chat can do.
“It is trying to replicate the fluidity of real-life group interactions and steals a page from the Wild West of early Internet chat rooms for inspiration,” she added.
Pundits differ on which they prefer, with some cottoning to Facebook’s story that people prefer one-on-one connections and others appreciating the somewhat more novel many-to-many approach.
What few people disagree on is why Facebook and Google launched their video chat solutions: The tools are steps to boost user engagement on the social networks.
Facebook has the comely coupling of a huge head start and a massive user base. Facebook users spend an incredible average of 6.5 hours a month of their time connecting with other people.
“‘Video me’ will soon mean ‘let’s connect via video on Facebook,'” said Forrester Research analyst Henry Dewing in a blog post July 7. “That engaging communications paradigm will enable more connections and lead to more activities that people will engage in on Facebook.”
Google+ is just getting started, and it’s hard to reliably count user engagement when users are still setting up their social networks and doling out invites.
However, Digg founder Kevin Rose said on Google+ that he forwarded his kevinrose.com domain to Google+, noting: “G+ gives me more (real-time) feedback and engagement than my blog ever did.”
Still, history and statistics from Pew Research suggest Facebook’s position on the flightiness of video chatters is correct.
Pew found that while 19 percent of American adults have tried video chat online or on their mobile phones, a mere 4 percent of Internet users are engaged in video calling, chatting or teleconferencing on a given day.