Skype on Facebook, Live from Seattle: a Partial Answer to Google+ and a Big Debut for Emerald City Engineers

7/6/11Follow @curtwoodward

On his way to work today, Mark Zuckerberg says he ran into a neighbor who’d heard reports that Facebook was about to unveil a new video-calling feature. Get on that, he told the youthful billionaire, so I can chat with my grandkids.

That’s now possible, with Facebook’s announcement that its 750 million users will be able to connect with friends and relatives through a quick, embedded Skype video-chat feature. The two companies had previously worked to tie their products together, but in a news conference from Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters, Zuckerberg said the Skype integration makes a bigger point about the way Facebook wants to leverage its platform in the future.

“We want to leave the individual apps, as much as possible, to individual entrepreneurs and companies that are best in class,” Zuckerberg said. “We just have this belief at Facebook … that individual entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs that focus on one specific thing will always do better than a company that’s trying to do a million different things. That’s what we’re banking on.”

Zuckerberg also announced a couple of other chat-related features: Group chats and a redesigned interface that is aimed at wide screens (not mobile devices). But the Skype integration was the highlight, particularly after the debut of “hangout” group-videoconferencing feature recently unveiled as part of Google+, the search giant’s rival social networking platform.

Unlike Google+ hangouts, Skype on Facebook is right now a one-on-one feature. Without saying so directly, Zuckerberg and Skype CEO Tony Bates suggested that group video calls could be an upcoming addition, with Zuckerberg saying they would begin working on new versions almost immediately. The new Skype on Facebook also isn’t working on mobile devices yet. It’s free, with a possibility for paid features in the future.

The entire feature was developed in about six months, the two CEOs said. On Facebook’s side, the primary work was done in Seattle, where Facebook has its only standalone engineering office outside of California. Zuckerberg, in fact, hinted at today’s announcement during his visit to Seattle last week, saying the company was about to launch “something awesome” developed in the offices overlooking Pike Place Market.

Seattle engineer Philip Su, sporting the Facebook Seattle office’s Space Needle logo on his T-shirt, ran through a quick demonstration of the feature by video-calling some coworkers up north, who gathered around the camera to wave hello.

In a blog post, Su noted that he was the only full-time engineer on the project—although he had some help from other Facebookers (some Skype people were no doubt involved, too).

“As my first project at Facebook, I’m amazed that so few engineers are needed to put together such a fun and useful feature,” Su wrote. The video-calling feature isn’t embedded in Facebook home pages right now, but you can test it out here.

Su pointed out the easy interface, which doesn’t require leaving the Facebook window and only a quick download. Once it’s set up, video calls can be started with just a click or two, provided you actually want to video chat with someone at that moment (Zuckerberg noted that your computer’s camera won’t turn on unless you accept a video call).

“If it was any easier than that one click, it would be reading your mind, basically,” Su quipped.

Su is a veteran of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) who joined Facebook last fall. His online bios say that he worked in Redmond for about 12 years, with assignments including tablet PCs, Live search, training developers in China, cloud services, and social networking tools. Facebook has about 40 people in the Seattle office, led by Ari Steinberg.

One last item that stood out: The presence of Microsoft throughout this tale isn’t a coincidence.

Facebook has gotten some of its top Seattle engineers from Microsoft, which is also an investor in the social networking company and partner through its Bing search engine. Of course, Microsoft also is in the process of acquiring Skype for about $8.5 billion.

Zuckerberg and Bates both said their work on integrating Skype into Facebook preceded the Microsoft deal, but Bates also said Zuckerberg was one of the first people he told about the buyout.

For Facebook’s part, it was a reassurance: “That gives us the sense of stability, that it’s going to be with a company we can trust,” Zuckerberg said.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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