For the last few days the tech press has been in a tizzy because Facebook scheduled a live press conference, to reveal, in their words “Something Awesome”. The presser was streamed via the Facebook Live page, which has more than a million “Likes”. Despite the massive number of likes, and the promise of surprise “awesomeness”, there were just around 50,000 people watching. Then again, getting 50k people watching a press conference is impressive.
It’s notable that Mark Zuckerberg appeared front and center, and conducted the press conference himself. The last time I saw Zuckerberg speaking live was at the infamous SXSWi keynote conversation disaster, where he came off as awkward and uncomfortable. He’s clearly done some serious media training and practicing since then. He came off as confident, and almost eloquent, especially for a hard core geek.
The first big announcement is that Facebook is partnering with Skype to bring video chat right into the Facebook interface. This could turn out to be a huge boom for Skype, and another step towards Facebook’s march to be the all-encompassing communications platform for social web dwellers. On the surface, video chatting via Skype is no big deal. It’s something I do on a daily basis, especially for meetings. Thinking through it a little further though, it’s actually a massive step forward. Video chatting is common among us geeks, but to the general Facebooking population, it hasn’t quite caught on and fully penetrated into a part of people’s daily routine. Having the ability to video chat with their Facebook friends, right in an environment they’re familiar with and removing the hurdles that stop many people from using Skype is “something awesome”.
Users of Facebook/Skype video chat won’t need to sign up for a new service. They won’t have to download an app. They won’t have to learn a new interface. They won’t have to find their friends, invite them, and get them signed up for a new service. They’ll just have to click on a friend and invite them to chat. It couldn’t be simpler. Which is why this is a huge deal: simplicity. Make it easy, and convenient, and people will use it.
The second announcement is the availability of group chat to all Facebook users. Group Chat has been a feature of Facebook Groups for some time, so once again, most users will be comfortable with this new feature right off the bat. It will be possible to keep adding friends to the chat on the fly, which Facebook claims will be quite useful for making group plans online, which is their test case example. Want to book a group trip with your friends to see the new Harry Potter flick? Forget the endless email chains and pop open a group chat. Users can expect to start seeing group chat live beginning on Wednesday.
A quick look at these two new features doesn’t seem to induce a huge feeling of “awesome” promised in the hype building up the last week. Video chat and group chat are old hat to geeks. What makes this a big announcement is the sheer scale of the whole thing, as well as the intended audience. The huge number of Facebook users means that video and group chatting are about to become a regular part of the online life of millions of people. They’re about to go from being the domain of geeky webheads to the world of your Mom and random people from your high school. It isn’t about the technology, it’s about making the technology mainstream. Making it mainstream, is positioning Facebook to be the central communications hub for its’ entire user base. That is one smart strategy that is sure to pay off in the long term.