After testing a free voice calling feature for its Messenger app in Canada recently, Facebook has quietly made the feature available in the U.S. as well–to iPhone users, anyway. Now, according to The Verge, iPhone users can make free calls using a WiFi connection, with no carrier data charges, or using their data plan.
It’s hardly the first free voice calling app. Google Voice has offered this for a long time, and there’s also Gmail Chat. Neither is limited to iPhone users or, of course, Facebook members. There’s also Skype, which allows you to make free calls to other Skype users.
Given that most people with a cell phone have voice minutes by default, often so many that they don’t end up using them up each month, this isn’t something a lot of people are probably clamoring for. But for Facebook, it offers several benefits. In fact, it could provide nearly all of the benefits of the long-rumored Facebook phone–the notion of which was quashed by none other than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself last year:
* People will end up using Facebook more. In other words, it’s one more way, along with yesterday’s announcement of its Graph Search service, that Facebook is making itself not just entertaining, but useful. That’s key to keeping the 1 billion-plus people from gradually wandering away from what is, for all its appeal, the biggest time-waster online.
* It’s another mode of communications. And communications–that is, being social–is what Facebook is all about.
* It may be especially appealing to young people, who often have limited voice or data plans. And Facebook, whose membership now tends to be older than newer rival services, needs to keep young people engaged.
* It’s a way for Facebook to make sure people turn to the company’s apps on their mobile devices rather than to rivals’. Facebook has recently managed to ramp up its mobile ads, to as much as 20% of overall ad revenues. So this is less of a concern when it comes to making money directly through apps. But Facebook remains in catch-up mode in mobile–for pete’s sake, its biggest project in years, Graph Search, has no mobile component at the outset. So it has to make sure it offers useful features, especially those native to smartphones and tablets, or it could gradually become less relevant to the rising number of people for whom the phone is their computer.
Nobody really needs an actual Facebook phone, because apps make every phone a Facebook phone. Free voice calling is just one way to make sure it remains that way.