Facebook Launching Ad Hoc Group Chat, New Chat Design, Skype Video Calling

CEO Mark Zuckerberg today announced that Facebook would be launching several new features, including ad hoc group chat, a new design for its Chat interface, and a Skype integration to allow for video calling. These features are already live for some users, and the global roll out to the rest of the user base will happen quickly.

Ad Hoc Group Chat

Users will be able to choose multiple friends and begin a Group Chat instantly, without previously having created a Group with those friends. While Chatting with one friend, a drop down will allow users to “Add Friends to Chat”. This opens a type ahead, with each entered friend being added to the conversation. This way, rather than having to purposefully start a group chat, it can organically grow out of a standard one-on-one chat.

If added users are online, they’ll see messages as Chat. Otherwise, the group chat messages will appear in their inbox. Group chat also works with Facebook’s mobile interfaces, in the sense that mobile users can be added to a group chat and see messages from all other participants, though they won’t be able to add new people to the conversation.

Facebook has taken precautions to alleviate privacy issues that could arise from one user adding others to a private one-on-one conversation that might contain sensitive content. Project Manager Peter Deng tells us that, “When you take a one-on-one chat and turn it into a Group chat, you don’t bring over the Chat history. You have a clean slate. People can add to that, but by then they know they’re not talking one-on-one.”

Facebook explained that 50% of users are already using its Groups feature, with an average of seven users per group. The pre-made group chat feature was apparently very popular, and the company figured that making the feature available ad hoc between friends who weren’t already in a Group together would further increase usage.

New Chat Design

“It’s been hard to start a conversation before”, says Deng. Now, Facebook will snap on a Chat sidebar if there is enough room in a user’s browser, making it easier to browse Facebook while Chatting. “This makes it so users who have wide enough screens will have an easier time initiating conversations” says Zuckerberg.

Deng tells us that the goal was to make Chat more a part of the browser. “As you’re browsing Facebook, conversations with friends will always be one click away.”

The new sidebar Chat design also includes a more prominent iteration of an older feature called “Limit Availability on Chat”. This allows users to select which of their friend lists they appear available for Chat to. They can select to appear available or unavailable to different lists.

Previously, users had to select which lists to show in chat, and then click on a green pill icon to become available or unavailable to friends in that list. With how buried and difficult to understand this feature was, it probably wasn’t used very often.

The new design presents users with a clear “Limit Availability” option within the Chat panel. The added prominence of this form of privacy settings may be able to combat a major issue with the Chat product — — the desire to not be interrupted. Users can Chat with close friends without being interrupted by those they’re less familiar with. Alternatively, users can Chat only with their professional contacts or co-workers during the day. By being able to select exactly who one appears available to in an intuitive way, users may be more comfortable leaving Chat on.

Skype Video Calling

The Facebook Skype video calling feature will require users to download a plugin. However, if a user hasn’t installed the video chat plugin, they’ll be able to receive an invite to a video call, download the plugin on the spot, and begin video calling. This is different from traditional Skype where both users need to have downloaded Skype before hand.

Video calling can be reached from a new Call button on a friend’s profile or from the Chat panel. Users see a “Set up video calling” prompt within Facebook, click to accept, and the 29 kb plugin downloads and installs within the browser. Users can then begin their video call. A recipient receives an alert that they’re being called, and can then accept or decline.

The video call window is a separate browser window from Facebook, meaning users can browse around Facebook or other websites while carrying on a video call. Users can select to mute themselves or change their audio input options.

Update: Facebook has set up a landing page for video calling that allows users who haven’t received the roll out of the feature to gain access. A Help Center article about video calling also includes some more details:

  • If  a user video calls a friend who has a microphone but not a webcam, they’ll be able transmit video and audio to them and just receive audio back. If you have a webcam, you can’t turn it off to make an audio call.
  • A log of the time and date of a video call appears in the inbox conversation between two users, but audio and video are not recorded.
  • Video calling works with a variety of browsers, but only Mac and Windows operating systems. Linux is not supported.
  • If a user calls a friend who isn’t available at the time, they can record and send them a video message that will appear in their inbox, and a log of the missed call will appear there too.
  • While video calling with a friend, users can also text chat with them and other friends. However, users can only video call with one friend at a time

Zuckerberg says that Facebook will begin with one-on-one video calling. However, there may be potential for group video calling in the future. Tony Bates, Skype’s CEO, says that his company is “considering having Skype paid products within the [Facebook] product.”

In fact, Skype’s consumer head head of consumer product Neil Stevens says that soon users will be able to click on highlighted phone numbers within Facebook to initiate a Skype voice call with them. This will be a paid service, though its unclear whether users will pay Skype directly or purchase calling minutes with Facebook Credits. Other features in the works include Facebook to Skype client calling and group video calling.

Previously, Facebook had worked with Skype to add features from the news feed into Skype’s desktop software. This new partnership between Skype and Facebook worked such that Skype built the downloadable plugin, and Facebook worked on the user flow and getting two people connected as quickly as possible once they’ve sent a video call request.

Phillip Su, the feature’s engineer, tells us it should not present a traffic issue that could cause Facebook to load slower because 95-98% of the traffic of a video calls passes peer-to-peer, and not through Facebook.

Su tells us that the majority of Facebook’s web users connect via broadband, so video calls should run at relatively high definition most of the time. However, Skype’s technology will degrade video quality when necessary but always maintain the audio feed in order to “preserve the impression of continuous connection” says Su.

The video call feature has been in development since before Microsoft moved to acquire Skype. It was also being prepared before Google launched its video call feature Hangouts. Deng tells us “we’re in the business of giving users the best features we have available”, and that this was ready, so the company launched it. However, we’ve heard rumors that the feature could have been even better if given more development time, so perhaps launch was accelerated to prevent Google from gaining a lead in the space.

Deng tells us that Facebook will be watching the level of adoption and user behavior for all of the new products, and will then determine where to go next in terms of features and presentation.

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