Facebook’s Main Man on Skype, Seattle’s Philip Su, on Making Video Calls Magical

7/27/11Follow @curtwoodward

In the six months or so he spent building Skype video chat into Facebook, Philip Su had a particular person in mind: your mom. Well, not just her—when you’ve got a user base 750 million strong, there’s a big contingent of folks who aren’t early adopters or tech geeks. And even though video calling has been around for several years, lots of people probably haven’t used it yet.

The big hurdle? Setup and installation—for every download, new username, term of service, and on and on, you lose handfuls of mainstream users. And that puts a real crimp on those made-for-TV marketing moments where a grandparent coos over the newest member of the brood from thousands of miles away.

“Like my parents, right? I bought them a little laptop, and it has a little webcam. And I bought this two years ago. And they didn’t even know the thing had a webcam—it was just like a little black thing on the top,” Su says. “But [now] you video call them, and they’re like, ‘Oh this is magical! I can’t believe it! This is so cool!’”

Of course, there’s plenty of work behind all that magical stuff. I stopped by the Facebook offices in Seattle recently to talk with Su about the Skype project, which was announced earlier this month at a big press event down at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, CA.

The debut of video calling was the biggest public showcase yet for Facebook Seattle, the collection of roughly 40 engineers who represent the social networking behemoth’s only significant engineering office outside of Silicon Valley. The flat-topped Su represented the Northwesterners at the Skype project unveiling in Palo Alto, wearing the Seattle office’s distinctive Space Needle-logo T-shirt (which got some love of its own in the tech press).

Facebook-Skype video calling still isn’t live for everyone in the Facebook universe. Like most things in the social network, it’s being rolled out in stages, and Su continues to quarterback the process. He was the only full-time Facebook engineer on the project, although some others chipped in with part-time help.

As GigaOm’s Ryan Kim detailed in this piece, the big problems for Skype were paring down its service to work inside a Web browser, making sure the back-end connections with Facebook were smooth, and getting ready to handle a flood of traffic—Skype CEO Tony Bates said the Facebook deal is tied directly to Skype’s goal of getting to a billion users.

On the Facebook side, Su says, the huge user base meant working through a rat’s nest of different configuration scenarios and making sure the video calls stayed “magical,” stable, secure and easy to use.

“For instance: users running Windows XP SP3, with user access control on, that are non-admins—what happens in their case, when they install in a home where a husband and wife share a machine, but have two different logins? And both are logged in at … Next Page »

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

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