In what seems intended to be a high-profile response to the limited release of Google+, the 6th of July saw Facebook’s online announcement of a major video chat development between themselves and Skype. Facebook users will shortly find that their profiles offer them the in-built chance to chat 1-2-1 with their friends, with the seamless integration of this service into Facebook’s chat service. If (like this author) you’ve been initially mystified by press reports claiming that you can try it but were wondering why it has not yet turning up in your Facebook account, simply visit http://www.facebook.com/videocalling to access an introduction plus setup instructions. There are a couple of things to install, but the whole thing is far easier than opening a Skype account; if a user doesn’t have a webcam, they can still chat over microphone. Sadly it doesn’t seem to work with Android mobile phones yet (I can’t verify other platforms), but mobile versions are expected. Google+ may be going for videochat quantity in terms of ‘Hangouts’ (with its much vaunted 10-person video chat facility), though Facebook have definitely stolen back some of the limelight by launching a Facebook/Skype integration which doesn’t even require users to have a Skype account.
Despite the temptation to see this solely as a retort to Google’s headline-grabbing ‘launch’ of Google+, it is certainly not the case that this was an overnight development. Skype and Facebook struck a (largely unspecified) partnership back in October 2010, so this has probably been in the pipeline for some time. However, with the Google+ juggernaut gaining momentum and Microsoft (who are in the process of buying Skype as well has having Facebook shares) now firmly on the side of Facebook, this will be one web war worth watching. Whether or not this is the beginning of the end for the traditional phone network remains to be seen, though this is undoubtedly a major development.
Away from the tech intrigue, what could the integration of Skype and Facebook mean for libraries? Many libraries are currently using various aspects of Facebook for service promotion such as having a Facebook page, responding to user comments and allowing users to ‘check-in’ via Facebook places. Once Skype is 100% integrated, libraries can allow users to video/voice call to ask questions, and it is possible that this might be used by some for enquiries and enquiry handling. Many libraries already use web-chat/web-conferencing software for such purposes, and those with superior technology could see the current Facebook/Skype offering as a step backwards; however, those without these services might be attracted to the idea. And, in these hard times, using Skype via Facebook will be free, which is always good. The question remains about whether (in the above scenario) staff would use their own profiles or create alternate ‘work’ profiles for chatting with customers, but it is an interesting thought. Perhaps, one day, part of joining a library could even include the option for a user to befriend the library on Facebook and supply said library with a user’s online identity as part of their join-up record; this could form another route of communication, and is helpful if a user changes their mobile phone number and doesn’t tell the library…if the person being called is not online, they can even be left a video/voicemail message which they pick up next time they sign in. Intriguing.
Overall, one must admit that the Hangout feature on Google+ looks much more advanced, though the really exciting thing is that Facebook and Skype seem set to announce even more developments (see the BBC News article), so perhaps group conversations will one day be possible on ‘Skypebook’. Certainly Skype is an acknowledged leader in its field, so more developments are credible. One thing is for sure – we haven’t seen the last of the videochat wars yet, and interesting tools might well emerge which are useful for libraries.