Awaiting Facebook’s ‘awesome’ response to Google+ Hangouts

4 Jul 2011

If Facebook is indeed planning a new group video platform, don’t think of it as a knee-jerk response to Google+ and its Hangouts feature. Think instead of group video as a gateway to the next big thing in digital media commerce. Both Facebook and Google each have an eye on the prize.

Introducing video chat is long overdue on Facebook. It was the next logical move by the social networking giant, only in fairness, Google got there first with Hangouts and you have to assume it was provoked into this response.

There is a pattern emerging, whereby every time Google does something Facebook responds with some new innovation or other. Clearly, Facebook has Google in its sights. Facebook has done remarkably well, its only drawback is it is missing a powerful search engine.

Google’s response to social has so far been complicated with the crashing of Wave and the uncertain success of Buzz. The problem has been getting these tools to ‘stick’ and keep users coming back for more.

However, first impressions of its Google+ offering suggest Google has got it right and with the addition of that black bar across the top of Google’s web pages with status update indicator in the top right corner and the activity I’m seeing is proof it is ‘sticking.’

Google went a few step further than merely introducing the circles social graph – it introduced a group messaging platform called Huddle and a group video conferencing system called Hangouts that enables entire groups of friends in multiple locations to video chat simultaneously.

Facebook’s ‘awesome’ response

So what will be Facebook’s response? News emerged over the weekend that Facebook is going to be holding a press conference at its Silicon Valley headquarters this week to launch something it called “awesome.” Being so far away in Ireland we don’t get invited to such things but what I have seen of the invite is a graphic with a silhouette enclosed inside a speech bubble. This suggests either a new messaging platform or as many claim – finally – a videoconferencing tool it will launch in partnership with Skype.

Video chat has been a long time coming on Facebook and, in a world hurtling towards potentially 80pc of web communications being video based, it was a logical next step for Facebook.

I’ve always felt Skype was undervalued in terms of the brilliance of its system and only in the last six months did it unveil tools that enabled more than two-way communications. Sheer magic, no wonder Microsoft was giddy with this new acquisition while others doubted the wisdom behind the buy. There is a reason for this, which I will get to shortly.

Facebook has had text chat and email capabilities for some time now – the missing link has been voice and video chat – while rival platforms like Gmail, MSN and Yahoo! Messenger were streets ahead in terms of their video offering and arguably had these features for years.

But nevertheless, Facebook found the magic glue of ‘social’ and its 750m users would forgive it for being tardy on the video front because they’d be too busy doing other stuff, like playing FarmVille.

Perhaps Facebook thought it had the luxury of time and space to perfect its video offering.

Perhaps Google’s Hangouts offering spurred it into action sooner than it was ready and it needed a partner like Skype rather than any proprietary technology to spin into action. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. We’ll know by Wednesday.

Here’s what I think: when Google brought out Google+, it didn’t need to bring so much out at once, but it did. Included in that was video chat – group video chat – and that touched a nerve at Facebook. Perhaps Google knew something or had figured out the next step a long time ago.

Why would group video chat touch a nerve? Firstly, the capability is there now for millions of consumers across the world to use it, in terms of broadband and the various connected devices supporting it. Secondly, but perhaps it should be first – advertising!

Think about it for a second, targeting not just individuals but groups of friends at a time when they are communicating and at their ease, based on the likes and trends defining their group or generation. Right there is an abundance of information. Targeting based on where each of them is standing location-wise, for example, or what they have in common.

What if they’re not just targeted with the right advertising but the right services? What about the context of their conversations, what other media are they sharing at the time via YouTube or Vevo? Are they sharing the latest Lady Gaga video? If so – are they in the same city or country and does Lady Gaga happen to be coming their way? Bingo! Time to book hotels, transport, buy merchandise, and don’t forget the concert tickets. Offer them a group rate! Enable them all to chip in there and then with credits or some other form of payment and avail of discounts via Groupon coupons. It can all happen within the conversation. And that would be magical.

If indeed this kind of awesome is what Zuckerberg et al intend to unveil Wednesday, then it will be the beginning of a new chapter in terms of the online advertising revolution kick started by Google and the social revolution consolidated by Facebook.

In this new world of social context, group buying and better informed advertising, both Facebook and Google are only at the starting gates for what will be a neck-and-neck race.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years