Facebook, Google duke it out over video calls

Video calling isn’t new technology. But it is new to Facebook and is perhaps the most compelling feature in Google’s upstart Google Plus social network.

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg brought video calling to the world’s largest social network, made possible through a partnership with Skype.

Facebook will be rolling out the see-and-be-seen feature to its 750 million members over the next few weeks. I got to try it early and also experimented with video chat in Google Plus (which is in an invitation-only phase).

The differences between the services could further intensify the rivalry between the two Internet giants.

On Google Plus, you can engage in spontaneous video chat by announcing to your circle of friends, acquaintances and followers that you are virtually hanging out.

This “hangout” feature gives Google a crucial early advantage over Facebook, where video calling is a one-on-one, PC-to-PC affair. (Facebook did add group text chat.)

Of course, video calling alone won’t change the reality of the social-networking order: Google hasn’t exactly knocked it out of the park with its earlier efforts (remember Orkut, Buzz and Wave?). Meanwhile, it may seem that practically everybody you’ve ever known frequents Facebook.

Though I experienced a few prelaunch snags testing Facebook’s video-calling feature, it is pretty simple to use.

“It’s a completely casual but awesome exchange,” says Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s director of product engineering. It’s likely a more serendipitous exchange than, say, a planned Skype call.

The very first time you try to place a video call on Facebook — by clicking on the tiny camera icon inside a chat window — you are asked to complete a one-time setup, permitting the download of an “applet” or plug-in. It’s essentially a smaller version of the Skype software.

Both parties must have Facebook open on a computer and have chat enabled. And, of course, you’ll need a webcam and microphone, now standard on most computers.

Call quality based on my limited tests with Facebook and Skype representatives, and a couple of friends, was very good. I was using a Mac; the people on the other end were using Macs and PCs.

You can take a call full screen and see your own mug in a smaller window. When someone calls you, a window appears on top of whatever you’re doing in Facebook; you can click to answer or ignore the call.

If a person you are calling is offline, you can record a video message they can play later, though the controls on the window that appear when you want to record such a message are confusing.

Facebook aims to spread its video-calling feature across its vast membership. Once you complete a call with someone, they in turn can call others. (They’ll be prompted to get the same applet.)

But there are limits. Though calls are handled through Skype’s own peer-to-peer networking technology, you can’t make calls inside of Facebook to Skype contacts, even if you have Skype software loaded on your computer.

Facebook video calling is strictly for Facebook friend to Facebook friend. You also can’t call Facebook members who are not your friends.

That friend-to-friend video call must take place computer-to-computer. You can’t make or receive a Facebook video call to or from a mobile phone or tablet computer, at least not yet.

Mobile video is of course possible through certain Skype apps or, say, Apple’s FaceTime video chat. Eventually offering video chat for mobile devices is “a totally reasonable place for us to go,” Facebook’s Bosworth says.

Once on a call, you can’t turn off the video and make it an audio-only call, as is possible on other services. And while you can tell your chat buddies that you are “offline” and unable to accept a call, there aren’t specific privacy controls in place that would let you cherry-pick who can call you via video and who cannot. You’d have to unfriend somebody to prevent them from calling.

You also can’t share files during a call or have both of you watch, say, a YouTube video. I hit a few technical snags, too: a plug-in that crashed in Safari, video that froze while I left a message and software that was “temporarily unavailable.”

Though mum on specifics, Skype executive Neil Stevens says the Facebook deal will eventually involve mobile and landline minutes, presumably SkypeOut calls that will let you call regular phone numbers for a small fee.

The timing is apparently coincidental, but Facebook’s video launch comes shortly after the Google Plus debut. My first impressions of Google Plus are positive, though it’s still very early.

Google Plus is built around the concept of “circles,” groups of people who fit one or more categories. The idea is that you can share stuff with one circle of intimates that you don’t want to share with another group.

One word of advice: Pay attention to the light on your computer indicating that your webcam is in use. I learned that lesson the hard way. I had initiated a hangout session, then my regular phone rang.

As I spoke on the phone, I was unaware that a friend had dropped in on my hangout. He saw me and heard every word I said on the regular call.

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