Facebook Messenger app change allows free calls via WiFi

January 17, 2013

Facebook’s long-rumored phone ishere, though probably not in the way most had imagined. In fact, it looks exactly like the phone you already have.

Using software, rather than hardware, the latest update of Facebook’s Messenger app now lets U.S. users place voice calls over WiFi. The rollout follows reports of Facebook testing voice call features in Canada earlier this month.

To use the feature, Facebook users must hit the “i” info icon in the corner or a conversation or contact information page. That panel has a “Free Call” button that you can use if your friend has the latest version of the iPhone app.

The company slowly has been building out the features available in chat — most notably with the 2011 Skype partnership that put video calling on the Web version of its site. When it released Facebook Messenger last fall, it became even clearer that messaging and mobile applications were priorities for the company.

Rumors of a Facebook phone have been circulating for year, despite statements from Facebook, its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and analysts saying that making a physical phone isn’t a good idea for the network.

It does make sense for Facebook to make it easy for users to contact their online networks. But the smartphone industry is not an easy one to crack. Apart from the fact that Facebook hasn’t made hardware in the past, the telecommunications world has lots of complicated barriers to entry such as dealing with carriers and the challenge of taking on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems. Facebook also could go the partnership route, but it’s already done that with the not-so-successful HTC Status.

Consumers are increasingly looking for companies and devices that give them a rich, complete experience rather than those that do a single thing. Take, for instance, the iPod, which has had to become a still and video camera in addition to playing music to hang on in a post-iPhone era.

By going the software route, Facebook can step neatly around those issues. And it’s not alone, as was clear from the growing software and content focus at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show. Much of the tech industry is using this same approach — software, not hardware — to test the appeal of features without getting entrenched in building, marketing and drawing users to their gadgets.

(Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Don Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)

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Facebook tests voice calls with iPhone app

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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