by Daniel Terdiman
Sometime in the next few weeks, the social network's tens of millions of users will begin to be able to have high-quality voice conversations, even as its third-party developers are able to start including voice in their applications.
The new technology is not being offered by Facebook itself, however. Instead, it's from Vivox, a Boston-based company that provides the integrated voice service for virtual worlds like Second Life and EVE Online, and which already has more than 15 million users worldwide.
The service, which is currently in closed beta, will allow Facebook users to have high-fidelity conversations with anyone on their friends list. Each user, however, will have to download Vivox's plug-in. But once installed, the service works almost seamlessly with Facebook, and is intended for everything from one-to-one chat to large group discussions.
Further, even non-Facebook users will be able to participate, as Vivox plans to offer free dial-in numbers that will allow anyone to call into an existing conversation, much as is possible today with call-in phone conferences.
Perhaps more importantly, according to Vivox co-founder Monty Sharma, the company is making its technology available to any third-party Facebook application developer, meaning that almost any app, from games to utilities, can have a voice component.
For now, it's not clear how many of Facebook's users will choose to adopt Vivox's technology, and for the time being, at least, Facebook is not involved in any way in promoting the new service. But while some people may decide that they don't want to use a tool that requires a plug-in, many others may well find that it's worth the trouble in order to be able to easily start a conversation that rivals, or even betters, phone call quality.
One person who may be an early adopter is Charlene Li, a well-known social media consultant, and the co-author of the book Groundswell.
"I would (use voice service on Facebook)," Li said, "because I see it as a continuum of communications with the people I want to stay in touch with."
Another social media expert, Gnomedex organizer Chris Pirillo, was even more effusive about the potential for a full-fledged Facebook voice chart system.
"It is about time," Pirillo said. "I guarantee you this is going to bite into Skype."
For Pirillo, the Vivox system will provide a valuable incentive for Facebook users to streamline their friends lists since it's likely that they won't want to be getting voice chat invites from people they've friended but might know only peripherally.
"When these tools come about," Pirillo said, "it becomes less valuable (to have too many friends) and actually promotes a cleaner ecosystem."
Great for retailers
To Li, giving third-party Facebook developers the ability to integrate voice chat into their applications may mean a big victory for retailers. She pointed out that a company like Overstock.com may find it extremely valuable to put out a Facebook app with voice built-in--without having to build the voice system themselves--because it would give people a way to quickly and easily chat with their friends about products they see.
"Retailers don't have to put in chat themselves," Li said. "They can just put in Facebook chat. That's where it starts getting very interesting."
And to Pirillo, the ability for Facebook friends to have a voice chat during, say, a game of Scrabble, is a very "smart" innovation that means users can streamline the number of different tools they're running simultaneously.
To be sure, Vivox's offering is not the first to make voice possible for Facebook users, though it may well be the most seamless.
Other options have included Equals' Party Line, which offers group chat for up to five people, and, of course, a work-around like Skype.
Vivox argues that its technology rises above anything else available today because of its scope and scalability. For one, the Vivox system has been proven on services like Second Life and EVE Online--and is about to be built into a series of online Electronic Arts games, beginning with Command & Conquer 4 Tiberian Twilight--and has been shown to support thousands of simultaneous users on a single channel. Further, the company said that because it already has more than 15 million users, it doesn't anticipate any problems handling the flood of new users that could come when the Facebook system is rolled out.
But while experts like Li and Pirillo think that voice chat is a natural extension for Facebook, there are some who feel that the technology make take some time to catch on in certain segments of the Facebook ecosystem, particularly one of the most popular, social games.
There are millions of people who play social games from developers like Zynga, Playfish, and others, and together the segment makes up one of the largest on the social network. But because social gaming is largely asynchronous--meaning users don't have to be online at the same time to enjoy playing games against each other--voice chat may not present as much utility.
"For social games, I don't see a strong need for (voice chat) yet," said Siqi Chen, the CEO of Social Business, a leading Facebook social games developer. "I do see a shift for more synchronous game play over time, but it hasn't really been happening for most games."
In part, Chen said, that's because among friends who like to play games together, it's fairly uncommon to be online at the same time. In addition, social games are built around short play sessions.
But he allowed that over time, as people spend more and more time on Facebook, there may well be an opportunity for social game developers to launch more engaging games that are built around longer session times, and which might work well with voice chat.
At Vivox, no one is expecting that tens of millions of users will immediately start using its voice chat technology. But the company is aware that it will likely see a significant spike in usage, and is ready to handle it when it comes, said co-founder Sharma.
And Sharma suggested that while it may be too early to know exactly how the company will monetize its Facebook integration, there are some obvious opportunities in microtransactions and audio ads that users would hear before being put into a voice channel.
For now, it's also too early to tell just how much of a game-changer any new voice chat system will be. But based on Vivox's track record, it is certainly one of the few companies well-positioned to jump headlong into a community as large as that of Facebook.
And to Pirillo, adding a seamless voice chat system is a natural, and just one step on the path toward where we may well be going in the near future: fully functional video chatting across the entire social network.
"Is it revolutionary? No," Pirillo said of Vivox's offering. "Is it evolutionary? Absolutely."