Onstage at Facebook's annual F8 conference back in March, CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to transform the social networking service into a suite of applications. "Moving from just being a single service to a family of world-class apps is the biggest shift in our strategy to connect people in many years," he said.
On Monday, Facebook doubled down on that pledge, adding a new key feature to its standalone Messenger app: video calling. In doing so, the company further established Messenger as a communications platform of its own.
"This is exciting because it makes total sense," Stan Chubnovsky, head of product for Messenger, told BuzzFeed News. "We're pulling all of the phone functionality into one screen, so with one tap you're upgrading to a video call — removing all friction from the process of communication."
In practice, Messenger's video calling experience looks much like that of its competitors, Skype, Google Hangouts and Apple's FaceTime. It uses both front- and back-facing cameras, has a movable selfie thumbnail, and launches directly from a chat. Its design is clean, and during the demonstration I attended, video call quality was smooth on two bars of LTE.
With a 600-million-person installed base, Facebook Messenger could someday challenge both those services. Certainly, it's not hard to see it becoming a formidable rival -- particularly to FaceTime. Unlike Apple's offering, Messenger works on Android and iOS devices, both.
Video calling is the latest in a string of new features recently announced for Messenger, which includes payments — among other things. And, according to Chudnovsky, it's the one users have been asking for most since the company added audio call functionality to the app almost a year ago. Since that time, Facebook Messenger has taken 10% of all mobile internet calls; that's a metric to keep in mind as video calling rolls out.
When Facebook insisted that users download Messenger to be able to message their friends while on mobile, it established the app as a platform distinct from the company's social networking service. Now, by enhancing it with features like video calling, it's raising the app's value proposition in a move to put Facebook at the center of all our communications.