Facebook Kicks Off ‘Launching Season 2011’

First up: Skype-powered video chat

Facebook just made the "awesome" announcement that CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised last week: Video chatting on the social network, powered by Internet phone service Skype.

Video chat was indeed one of the announcements rumored for today, and Zuckerberg did his best to explain why it's a big deal for Facebook. Still, for folks who were expecting the launch of an iPad app or a music service, today's news might seem a bit underwhelming. If so, not to worry—more launches are on the horizon. After a period where Facebook has been "busy building stuff for the past few months," Zuckerberg said that the coming weeks and months will feature a number of new product announcements—he called it "launching season 2011".

And hey, Facebook didn't just unveil its video chat product today. It also announced that users will be able to text chat in groups, and it unveiled a new chat interface with a sidebar showing the people that you chat with the most. Awesome, right?

As for today's big announcement of video chat, the big emphasis was on simplicity. During the demo, Zuckerberg and his team kept repeating that their goal was to build a video product that anyone can use. Facebook members just start a text chat with their friend, then click on the video icon to switch to video. One of the presenters boasted, "There are no separate accounts, no separate websites to go to, the download is small and easy."

Skype CEO Tony Bates described the service as "a mini-Skype client" in the Web browser, and he said the company's big motivation for the partnership is to increase its presence in the browser. Video calling in Facebook is free for now, though Bates said there's a possibility that the companies will add paid features in the future.

In addition to announcing product upgrades, Zuckerberg also expounded on his vision for where Facebook and social networking are headed. The site now has 750 million active users, he said, but Facebook hasn't made a big deal about that number because user count is becoming less relevant as a measurement of success. Now that Facebook and other companies have built the social infrastructure, the big explosion over the next few years will be in apps that take advantage of that infrastructure, as well as the exponential growth in sharing that they enable. Zuckerberg said the Skype partnership is one sign that Facebook wants to allow other companies to build powerful apps on its platform, rather than building everything itself.

"That's a really different approach from a lot of the other major Internet companies out there who want to do everything themselves," Zuckerberg said.

Was that a dig at Google, which launched its Google+ social networking service last week, including a video chat service called Hangouts? Perhaps. But pressed about his opinion on Google+ (where he is apparently the most popular user), Zuckerberg opted for diplomacy.

"I view a lot of this as validation that this is the way that the next five years is going to play out," he said.