Look Out Skype! T-Mobile Powers Facebook VoIP

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T-Mobile announced its new Bobsled brand Tuesday, which will be a carrier-agnostic set of products, the first of which is a Facebook voice chat application. Bobsled is powered by Vivox, a VoIP solutions company that has offered voice chat in video games and within Facebook since 2009. With the new Bobsled for Facebook application, available as a download today, the service enables Facebook’s more than 600 million members to place a voice call simply by clicking on the name of a Facebook friend in a computer web browser.

Here’s how the new product works: After downloading and installing Bobsled for Facebook on a Windows or Mac PC, the software adds a phone icon next each friend in your Facebook Chat window. Tap the phone icon, and a free voice call is initiated, even if the call recipient hasn’t installed the Bobsled application yet. Aside from one-touch calling, the service also supports voice mails in case the personal you’re calling isn’t available or doesn’t pick up. I ran a quick, early test with Mike Wolf, one of my GigaOM colleagues, and the sound quality wasn’t bad. More importantly, I didn’t have to worry about what phone number to dial.

The idea of calling people, and not numbers, is one I’ve long embraced. Back in a 2009 GigaOM Pro report (subscription required), I explained it this way, which sounds eerily similar to what T-Mobile’s Bobsled platform will offer through Facebook:

In today’s communication scenario, people have multiple numbers and phones. There’s typically a home number, a work number and one or more cellular phones. I actually have more than half a dozen active phone numbers for some of my contacts. I don’t want to know — or have to figure out — which of their numbers I should be calling. Instead of allowing the technology to smartly route our conversation requests to the appropriate contacts, we’re stuck in the 150-year-old paradigm of using phone numbers. Shouldn’t we be worried less about the arbitrary numbers assigned to people? It’s time to upgrade the method we use to contact our friends. We need a method that moves us away from calling numbers and toward calling people.

Of course, that vision won’t be complete until Bobsled for Facebook also supports mobile devices. Not to worry, says T-Mobile The company plans to add Bobsled features to mobile products such as smartphones and tablets in the future. It’s likely mobiles aren’t yet supported because the software uses Adobe Flash for microphone access. Video chat, something to rival Apple’s Facetime service, and free voice calls out to mobile and landline numbers are in the works too. And best of all, those mobile solutions won’t be limited solely to T-Mobile devices.

While this new product is impressive in its own right — and ought to have both the Google Voice and Skype teams thinking about social network integration — there’s more to it than voice calls in Facebook I saw signs of this when reviewing the new Sidekick 4G, which extends text messaging conversations to groups and over the web through new pre-installed applications. GroupText supports multiple text participants, while CloudText allows you to continue a text conversation on the web: you can seamlessly keep communication either on the handset or a browser and the entire conversation is viewable. Both of these services are also Bobsled products.

Although I’m not much for voice calls, my dream of calling people without worrying what number to use is much closer to reality with T-Mobile’s new Bobsled platform. Let’s get it on the handsets, I say!

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