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Summary:

Facebook jumped into an already crowded VoIP market with the update of its Messenger app last week. Robert Gaal, of Karma, says the company’s scale ultimately will allow it to kill off the phone.

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photo: bluefish/Shutterstock.com

As the founder of a startup, I am probably the last person you’d expect to tell you that scale matters. And to be sure, there’s plenty of innovation coming from small, nimble companies that nonetheless are able to disrupt huge markets.

However, with Facebook’s recent addition of voice calling to its Messenger app, the company is poised to demonstrate to the mobile industry the benefits – and power – of scale, first hand. And in what can only be described as the perfect murder, Facebook is now in a position to effectively kill the traditional telephone, starting with the phone number.

How it could work

The implementation of Facebook’s voice features are straightforward yet unique: You make a call by tapping a name, not a number, a username, or any other type of identifier. You’re calling a social connection. That in itself is not shocking, but Facebook can go even further. Its database already contains the phone number of tens of millions of people. (For fun, just type a friend’s phone number in the Facebook search bar, and you’ll likely see their profile pop up instantly.)

This means it could offer streamlined interoperability with existing phone networks in a way that a company like Skype, Viber, Whatsapp — or smaller voice calling startups — can’t so easily manage. Further, all the pages you “like” on Facebook have numbers connected to them, so calling a business is just as simple and at-hand as calling a friend. In the near future then, you will call a business via Facebook on the basis of a friend’s request or a like. No more unwanted calls. No more Yellow Pages. No more looking up a phone number you can’t remember. Just a connection.

What of the gatekeepers?

The real question is how existing gatekeepers of the mobile industry – namely phone carriers and manufacturers – will respond to this apparent threat to their apparent core business. The first, familiar route is to stick to their guns. Put up a blockade, offer low-level crippled integration, or just try to ignore it and hope it just goes away.

Or, they could embrace the disruption with open arms. Carriers need to realize that as the unlimited plan dies, there’s huge opportunity in sending more and more communication over a pay-per-use data line. (They just need to bill their customers in a transparent way.)

This second option would also include supporting Facebook’s interoperability with normal phone numbers. That means you’d be able to call grandma via Facebook whether or not she even has a Facebook account (or even knows what it is) – her old landline will ring just as easily. And when grandma calls you, your Facebook app picks up the call, using number forwarding that’s comparable to Google Voice.

Manufacturers could offer Facebook deeper integration as well. Currently VoIP calls on your iPhone don’t feel like a normal phone call, but they could if Apple were to allow Facebook to control or mimic the iPhone’s Phone app. (While that might sound impossible, don’t forget that Facebook is already integrated in the Contacts app – it is already on the iOS platform in a major way.) And Android is already giving Skype and other VoIP apps ways to generate an incoming call on a phone without sending an often overlooked push notification. Apple can go this route as well.

And now, the future

It’s safe to assume that Facebook is deep in talks already with operators and manufacturers to create a partnership that benefits all of them. To date though, even major VoIP companies like Skype have been unsuccessful in pulling this off. Facebook has a scale that even Skype needed at one point to reach enough people for VoIP calling to become ubiquitous. It won’t stop with this recent addition to the Messenger app. There’s too much for the company to win. (Yes, that includes blocking competitors.)

That Facebook phone you keep hearing about? I believe it’s an app. Sure, it could pull a Google Chrome and try and completely replace a broken platform with its own, but it doesn’t need to – its scale forces partners to listen. Facebook can kill the phone as we know it simply by rebuilding it as an app. It can completely replace Messenger, and it won’t have the voice call option as hidden as it is right now.

It will allow you to communicate through text, voice, and ultimately even video chat. It will use data, lots of it, and carriers might even learn to enjoy billing you for that on a pay-per-use basis. It will work over Wi-Fi too, which will come in handy as 4G LTE networks become more widespread. It will improve the quality of your call in the same way the CD improved the quality of your record collection.

And, by using a huge database of phone numbers, it will even let you call keep in touch with anyone stuck using that dated technology. “Grandma? This is Robert! I’m calling you on Facebook. No, it’s not a phone… .”

Disclosure: One of Karma’s minority investors is currently employed by Facebook, as a designer for products unrelated to this story.

Robert Gaal is co-founder of mobile data startup Karma. Follow him on Twitter @robertgaal

Photo courtesy of bluefish/Shutterstock.com.

  1. Wow, what an overstatement. If the only people you call are your friends and maybe some consumer businesses, I would agree that a Facebook phone app could put a dent in normal phone usage. However, as an adult with a job, I like to keep work life separate from my social life, and even some family life separate from that, and even other phone calls separate from that (doctors, random people I buy or sell things from on craigslist, etc.). I like having just a number that I can be identified with, and not a whole profile. I don’t want a lot of those people seeing what I did last weekend, etc. i.e. I do not want everyone I call being tied into my Facebook profile. So, I don’t see this happening.

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    1. Well said Phil.
      I think there are too many journos writing pie in the sky articles which are misleading and best not read.

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    2. Well said Phil.
      I think there are too many journos writing pie in the sky articles which are misleading and best not read.

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  2. Maxime Rafalimanana Sunday, January 27, 2013

    Interestingly, Facebook has already been my always-up-to-date phone book for a while now. On my android phone, all my FB contacts are synced up automatically (via some app or even maybe the official FB app, I don’t really remember). So my friends no longer have to text me when they change phone number. I just select there name in the standard phone app and it calls their latest phone number. Really convenient.
    But I also believe that ultimately VoIP will be the way we call people and operators will still still have an important role in it, providing the underlying data network.

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  3. Reblogged this on The Genius Way and commented:
    Do individuals really put their real life phone number on their Facebook page? Maybe I’m just not comfortable with this but I do see Facebook entering the phone market via app!

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  4. Not again. Please refrain from such pointless mind games. Facebook email was going to kill email. Yes folks, many people (Mr Gaal was probably one of them) were shrieking from the rooftops how Facebook email was going to destroy Gmail… What happened to FBMail? FLOP! What happened to Gmail? Not flop, now it’s number 1… And that in spite of FB being more popular than both Jesus and John Lennon combined!

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    1. What happen to Poke? Yes, Flop

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  5. Facebook is the ultimate filter, meaning the ultimate “Let it go to the answer machine.” We have a phone at home we never answer. We have cells we rarely don’t answer. See a pattern? We love the filtering effect of our cell phone which would be even better if we only received calls from our Facebook connections.

    For business, the filter is LinkedIn. It is an amazing way to bring the signal out of the noise and is the future of most channels we listen to. Great write up.

    We wrote up a similar thought here: http://successfulworkplace.com/2012/12/01/the-end-of-the-nuisance-call-or-wrong-number/

    Enjoy.

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  6. I just want a cellular provider who just bills me for data – package my voice, text, and data all into one fee. Give me a limited amount of data – but let the pricing be simple and straightforward.

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  7. WebRTC is a much more relevant topic and will make this article worthless.

    http://www.webrtc.org/

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  8. Interesting article. I have believed for some time that as soon as a viable competitor to the Phone Number comes along, the game is over for the phone companies. I don’t know if Facebook is it or not. Even if they have a billion users, they are still not the single online identity for everyone as other commenters have pointed out. But maybe they don’t have to be, considering that most people have three or more phone numbers, one for home, one for work and one for mobile.

    Anyway, I was thinking that Facebook’s other motivation behind this move is simply a way to make money from the mobile market. If they start charging to connect calls to the PSTN (Grandma’s phone) like Skype does, then maybe that’s where they’re heading. It will be interesting to try this out if they add it to the Android app.

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  9. Facebook has too overcome its image problem before it over “kills” anything other than Myspace. Right now, that’s the only thing Facebook has successfully killed. Despite the fact that FB has other uses, it’s still widely seen as the place to post drunk photos and play Castleville. People don’t consider FB to be the place to find useful and relevant information – although it could be that, it doesn’t market itself as such.

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