Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Facebook recently announced a free group voice call feature on its Messenger app for iOS and Android users. The feature is expected to benefit communications with multiple family members, friends and businesses, allowing up to 50 users simultaneously on a group voice call. Facebook reports that Messenger has more than 900 million active users, making the potential for disruption significant.
Audio calling is not new to Messenger: Facebook rolled out free voice chat in April 2014 and added one-on-one video calling about a year later. And Facebook-owned WhatsApp also offers free voice chat. But group voice chat is new for Messenger and could prove appealing in a social network environment that's intended to support many-to-many and one-to-one communications.
It's fair to point out that Facebook Messenger is late to the party. Google Hangouts, Microsoft's Skype and Chinese app WeChat already offer group video calling. An expectation had been growing that Facebook would roll out such a feature.
The voice group calling feature is a logical step, given Facebook's ambitions for Messenger as a platform service. It takes the app far from a simple messaging platform to a unified communications environment for consumers and businesses (see Instant Insight: Facebook F8 Developer Conference 2016). Messenger does not require users to divulge their phone numbers and allows blocking of unwanted calls. It is evolving into an advanced, secure, socially integrated communication platform that can appeal to both private and enterprise users.
For telecommunication companies, this move represents further erosion of their primacy as voice service providers for consumers and enterprises. The world of pure over-the-top services will take continued adjustments by operators.
Furthermore, Messenger's group calling feature will become another venue where consumers interact with businesses. Recently, the company rolled out a suite of tools and updates allowing Facebook users to better connect with businesses. Other business-specific features include Messenger Links, which allows companies to start message threads with potential customers, and Messenger Codes that consumers scan to open conversations with businesses. And at its recent F8 Developer Conference, Facebook introduced bots on Messenger, allowing enterprises to exploit artificial intelligence for customer interactions. CCS Insight expects voice interaction with bots to be one of the principal modes of operation.
Messenger is also the foundation of Facebook at Work, which launched out of beta earlier in 2016. This is a head-on competitor to Slack, which is gaining ground rapidly as a collaboration tool and substitute for e-mail in the enterprise (see Slack Secures $200 Million Investment). For its part, Slack only has group voice calling as a beta feature on its paid service plans.
The addition of group voice calling makes good sense as Facebook looks to give Messenger a much larger role in people's lives, both as consumers and as employees. Given that Facebook is also hugely building up its range of video services, we expect group video calling to follow soon.