Further Reading: http://www.forbes.com
Facebook has accidentally leaked information about a new app that it’s testing, called ‘Phone,’ and this news should come as no surprise to anyone who believes Facebook wants to be at the center of how we communicate with the world around us. That includes with all elements of texting (through Messenger and WhatsApp) and increasingly, voice.
The app appears to be some sort of native dialler for Android that shows information about who is calling, and which automatically blocks calls from commonly blocked numbers. A spokesman confirmed to Venture Beat that Facebook was testing the service, after Android Police first posted a screenshots of an install update that should have only been seen by Facebook’s internal network. Thanks to Apple’s closed system it’s unlikely Facebook is even exploring making such an app for iOS.
Why does Facebook want to give its users a native dialler? Facebook has allowed users to make video calls through its desktop client since 2011, and voice calls through Facebook Messenger since early 2013. But both these services require that people on either end of the line are using the same Facebook feature, and the calls can only take place over a mobile carrier data network or WiFi.
A native dialler application would appear to be Facebook’s first service that coordinates with a carrier’s all-important voice network.
(It has yet to be confirmed that ‘Phone’ will filter calls being made to your phone number and not just between Facebook users, but the former seems likely. The video and audio calling features that Facebook already has don’t seem popular enough that users would want a separate app just to block VoIP calls – and most of the calls you want to block are spammers and marketers who managed to get hold of your mobile phone number anyway.)
In essence, Facebook appears to be trying to wedge itself a little further into the relationship between its users and carriers, when users are carrying out one of the most fundamental acts that telcos rely on to make money – making voice calls. That’s a crucial step both symbolically and practically, and the fact that the service is called ‘Phone’ suggests Facebook eventually wants to be part of the phone-calling experience that carriers still dominate.
International carriers like Vodafone and BT Group are still stinging from the huge bite of SMS revenues that WhatsApp, the globally popular messaging service with 700 million active users, took out over the last five years with its free texting service.
The messaging service, which Facebook bought last year, is now rolling out a free voice-calling service. While that won’t involve a native dialler, it looks set to take yet another chunk out of carrier revenues, this time in voice.
Should carriers be worried about Phone? It’s easy to dismiss a new, forthcoming app from Facebook as yet another failed experiment that will get tossed on the same heap where Slingshot, Poke and the Android launcher Facebook Home reside.
Yet even if Facebook’s users don’t fall in love with Phone, and the service doesn’t go much further beyond the testing phase, there’s no question the social network wants to become a more integral hub for our everyday communications. That could eventually mean weaning consumers off their reliance on carriers’ voice and texting services, and driving the role of carriers further down into the ground as “dumb pipes” that transport our data and not too much more.