A look at new video chat services from Facebook and Google

It’s been a big couple of weeks for video and social networking. Last Wednesday, Facebook launched its Skype-powered video chat and the week before that, Google launched its Google+ social network featuring group video chats.

The two approaches are very different. Facebook’s video calls are one-on-one: a video version of a traditional phone call. Google enables chats with up to 10 participants. Google calls its feature a “hangout.” Google+ is in its early testing stage and accessible on an invitation-only basis, but it will likely soon be available to everyone.

To understand how Google+ hangout works, you first need to know about “circles,” which are kind of a cross between a Facebook friends list and the people you follow on Twitter. You can have as many circles as you want (such as one for workmates and another for bicycling buddies and perhaps one for family members) and each time you add someone you want to interact with (akin to a Facebook friend), you have to assign them to at least one circle.

Every time you post something, you can make it available to one or more of your circles, to specific people or to the public. Another option is “extended circles” which is like Facebook’s Friends of Friends, including not only people in your circles, but people in their circle as well. And when you start a hangout you have the same options. You can opt to hang out with anyone (public), people in all of your circles, extended circles, specific circles or individuals.

When someone joins your hangout, you hear a chime and see their profile picture at the bottom of the screen so you know they’re there, assuming your paying attention. I say that because a few days ago I noticed that a friend of mine was “hanging out” on Google+, so I decided to hang out with him.

But instead of engaging in a conversation, I saw him talking on the phone to someone else about something confidential that I really shouldn’t have been party to. I contacted him later to let him know what happened, and he told me that his phone rang after he established the hangout and he became so engrossed in the conversation that he forgot his webcam was running.

He was lucky it was me listening and watching instead of someone who might have used the information against him. I wouldn’t call that a security flaw as much as a lesson in webcam privacy. If you’re going to use any webcam application, be sure you’re aware of who can see you and hear you. Pay attention to the screen and any indicator lights associated with your webcam.

Facebook’s new video calling feature does require you to accept a call from the person who initiates it, so accidental exposure is less likely. Overall, I like the new service but I must say that the announcement was a bit anticlimactic. A week before it was launched, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters in Seattle that Facebook would be rolling out “something awesome.”

It could be argued that what’s potentially awesome about the service is that it’s available to Facebook’s 750 million members and that it’s very easy to use. You do have to download a plug-in to your PC or Mac, but that’s handled automatically and pretty quickly the first time you initiate or accept a video call.

But personally, I would reserve the word “awesome” for something we haven’t seen before and video chatting is hardly new. Skype offered it for years and it’s also built into Google’s Gmail. If you use Gmail, you may notice a green video camera next to the names of your contacts that are online. Facebook’s service is so similar to Gmail video that its user interface is almost identical. With both services, you initiate a video chat by first clicking on the person’s name to bring up a text chat box and then clicking on a video camera at the top of the box to turn on your camera and request that they accept the call.

The fact that Facebook’s Skype implementation is not technologically awesome doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t be a great success. The key to success in social networking is less about the technology than how it fits into users behavior patterns. Being able to post something to a person’s wall is far from technologically awesome but it’s socially awesome, which is one of the reasons Facebook is so successful.

Unfortunately, you can’t use Facebook video to converse with Skype users who aren’t on Facebook and there’s no way to make a video call between Facebook and Gmail users, Google+ users or Apple FaceTime users. If video chat is to really go mainstream, it has to let people communicate with others regardless of what service they’re using similar to texting and email.

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