Facebook is preparing to roll out a new feature for its Messenger app which allows users to place free voice calls to friends. The feature is so far available only to iPhone users in Canada and is buried within the latest update to the app, but it will eventually allow users to make free internet voice calls, known as VoIP calls, to any Facebook friend. Experts are saying it represents an attempt by the world’s largest social network to dominate the social world by taking on the default calling function in mobile phones.
The new feature comes at the same time as Facebook Messenger rolled out a new feature worldwide which allows users to record and send a voicemail-type message to friends. Working in a similar way to video messaging in the company’s Poke app, users press and hold a red record button, speak their message, and it appears in line as part of the conversation.
TechCrunch writer Josh Constine imagines a range of uses for the function, from messaging while driving to recording the waves lapping at a beach to send to friends.
However, its addition to the Messenger app seems merely to make it an ‘even more complete app’ he writes, adding that he expects video messaging to soon be added as well. For now, Facebook’s Canadian users with iPhones can go one better and actually have real voice conversations with each other through Messenger. One-tenth the size of the U.S., but with very similar demographics and mobile usage trends, Facebook is using the country as a testing ground in advance of rolling our the feature in other markets.
By clicking the ‘i’ icon in the top right of a conversation in the most recent update to Messenger, users reveal a ‘free call’ button which allows them to contact any friend also within the test region.
However, while Facebook is not charging users for the service, the call is not technically free since it will use data on users’ existing mobile plans. Despite Facebook’s previous brief partnership with Skype, the new service is not based on that technology but has instead been built on open-source software. TechCrunch says that the move into voice messaging and VoIP can be seen as an attempt by the social network to take on the default, mobile network operated calling function on smartphones.
‘Facebook wants to own social, and that means a lot more than the news feed and profile,’ Mr Constine wrote on the tech news site. ‘Knowing who you’re close enough with to send voice recordings and calls helps it refine its relevancy-sorted content streams, too. ‘If Facebook has its way, eventually you’d only use it for friend-to-friend communication.’ Another tech commentator sees the roll out of VoIP on Messenger as an attempt to reinvent the phone, replacing numbers with a far-more personal interface. Daniel Herzig wrote on the TechBlitz website: ‘Facebook has reinvented the phone number. Instead of a 10 digit code to contact someone, Facebook is replacing an outdated system with names to call people. ‘There’s no more middle man: you are the phone number.’
However, users who are becoming more savvy to Facebook’s personal data-hungry business model were cynical about the companies aims at rolling out the new services. One reader of a story about the developments on engadget commented: ‘I think its to get a voice print to match the data they already have such as your phone number, contacts, location, and image. ‘All they will need is a thumb print now and retinal scan to complete your profile.’