Mark Zuckerberg made a critical point during yesterday's announcement at Facebook headquarters-a point that was glossed over in most of the subsequent (and concurrent) discussions.
The announcement introduced three features: group chat, modifications to the design for chat, and video chat. The demonstration of the video chat feature focused on simplicity. Want to initiate a video chat with a friend? From the chat tab or your friend's profile page, just click "Call." If you're the recipient of your very first Facebook video call, you don't need to download or install anything. Just accepting the call installs the plugin.
Skype CEO Tony Bates suggested the best way to think about the video chat feature is as a mini Skype client embedded in Facebook.
That simplicity will drive the feature's adoption. According to Zuckerberg, a lot of users don't even accept friends, despite how simple that one-click action is-people opt for simpler means of engaging with people-until something they want to do leaves them with no choice but to finally accept the invitation.
Much of the conversation during and after the session shrugged off Facebook's video chat, pointing instead to the Google+ Hangout feature, which makes it easy to launch a group video chat. Doesn't that make Google+ the winner?
Not if convenience is a key driver of use. Zuckerberg asserted that the vast majority of video chat is one-to-one. While he didn't back that up with any data, I have no problem believing it. It's already easy to launch a video chat on Skype when you have another reason to call someone-after all, video is just one of the options available when you make the call. A group video chat on Skype, on the other hand, requires a certain amount of planning. While Google+ Hangouts reduces the planning element-you can start one with people you see are already logged in-there will still be far more opportunities for one-on-one chats. I can easily see myself on Facebook, reading someone's update, and clicking once to start a video chat with that individual.
While the Facebook announcement may not have been sexy, I expect the ease with which people wil be able to initiate those chats on a whim will lead to a huge increase in video chats-far more than Hangout sessions will. And the fact that Hangouts represent the only kind of video chat on Google+ (unless I've missed a one-to-one video feature) gives people another incentive to stick with Facebook. (I mean, seriously, what's the ratio of opportunities in your life of one-to-one chats versus group chats?)
It's all about simplicity. The early-adopter/geek set doesn't care how complicated or convoluted a process may be. Most people do. You need look no further than the music industry for proof. People scoffed initially at the very idea of the iTunes Store. Who would pay 99 cents for a song when they can download a pirated version for free? The answer is clear when you consider that the iTunes Store now accounts for something like 30% of all music sales. People most definitely will pay 99 cents if getting the music that way is easier than downloading it for free.
Getting back to today's Facebook announcement, it's also worth pointing out that both Zuckerberg and Bates emphasized the word "yet" when confirming that Facebook's video chat doesn't support group chats.
The integration of Skype into Facebook demonstrates another reason Facebook is likely to remain the dominant social network despite the fact that Google+ has a lot of desirable elements. During the announcement, Zuckerberg said third-party developers will drive a lot of the innovation you'll see on Facebook in the next five years-third-party developers like Skype, for instance. Google+ so far integrates with, well, other Google tools, and some of them not so well (like Google Docs). I can't send a blog post to Google+ through Posterous, I can't let anyone know via Twitter that I've uploaded a photo to Google+.
I'm not dismissing Google+-heck, I like it a lot-but Facebook is integrated everywhere, and that lock-in will deter a lot of people-those who like simplicity more than they like hammering away at technology-from switching. As I watched President Obama at his Twitter Town Hall this morning, I noticed that the White House was promoting a real-time conversation-on Facebook. The White House even had a link to Facebook registration for those who wanted to participate but didn't yet have an account.
(I wonder how many new Facebook accounts were created by virtue of that link?)
Another meme surfacing in the wake of the announcement is the notion that Facebook video chat is a Skype killer. Since Skype enables the Facebook feature, that's not likely. But even beyond Facebook, I expect Skype to remain an important tool. After all, there's still a heck of a lot of audio calling going on over Skype. Skype accounted for 20% of all international voice minutes called last year, according to Telegeography.
There are businesses using Skype instead of paying exorbidant phone company rates. I no longer have a landline for my business. When you call the phone number for Holtz Communication, you're calling my Google Voice number, which automatically rings both my cell phone and my SkypeIn number.
Skype is healthy. Google+ will grow and evolve. But Facebook remains the king of the hill. Regardless of how mundane today's announcement may have been, adding one-to-one video chat serves only to solidify that position.