Facebook may have thrown its idea for a Facebook phone into the virtual trash bin, but that doesn’t mean the company has abandoned voice. Its latest update for its iOS app allows users in the US and Canada to place voice calls to other users, even if they don’t know the other person’s phone number, providing both are online and have the latest update of the iOS app. The calls are free, aside from the use of a data plan if the user is not on WiFi.
Users tap an icon in the right hand corner that supports messaging on the iOS app, choose which person to call, and if that person is online, tap the “Free Call” icon to connect. If the person is offline, the button is greyed out.
Facebook first tested the feature with a launch on its standalone messenger app last month. It first launched that option earlier in the year by allowing users to send one minute messages, but then released versions that allowed for actual voice calls. Facebook commonly tests out new features of its service on standalone apps to work out the bugs.
It’s worth pointing out Facebook did not launch the service through its Skype partnership and instead decided to offer the technology itself.
The move puts Facebook in slight competition with phone companies as an alternative to a phone’s default calling application. Facebook may have a small impact on the calls we place through traditional phone networks, but is limited as it relies on both users having the application on iOS and being online. It might make an alternative landline for some users who want to talk for free at home using their WiFi connection, but again that viability depends on the ubiquity of usage. It does provide a nice alternative to cheap calling services like Vonage, Skype, or Viber.
The service also providers Facebook more user data as the social site can better determine which friend connections are the strongest. This can help with its advertising platform as well as add more intelligence to its Graph Search features the company is currently rolling out.
How long before Facebook offers video conferencing? That could bridge a major interaction gap for the social network, as users will be able to have actual conversations that go beyond mere bullet points and adorable cat photos.
So far, the service is only available on iOS, though an eventual Android launch is also expected.