Facebook Releases Chat Client for Windows

Facebook now offers a desktop chat application for Windows. Like the company’s standalone mobile app, it is called Facebook Messenger, but the Windows client includes notifications and Ticker to drive users back to the site.

Ticker, a lightweight version of News Feed, has included Sponsored Stories since November. A Facebook spokesperson has confirmed Ticker in the Windows application will function as it does on Facebook.com. Though whether these ads are shown on the website or a desktop client could have different effects on clickthrough rates. As Facebook reviews adoption and engagement of the new app, it will also have to consider ad performance.

The social network is continuing to make its messages product available wherever users might want it. By developing a means of communication that works across devices, Facebook can become the default service people choose to contact each other.

In November 2010, the company began to integrate Facebook messages, chat, SMS and email in such a way that all the conversation between two people, regardless of medium, shows in a single thread. For instance, one user can send a message from the mobile Messenger app that will reach another user who is using chat on Facebook.com. That person can reply from there and the other user can later access the message from the web or mobile inbox. The new desktop client adds another element to this ecosystem.

Messenger for Windows is in a trial period for a small group of people, according to the Help Center where the download link is available.

Facebook 2011: A Year in Review

Facebook’s “Move fast and break things” mantra was put into action again this year as the company overhauled a number of its products, introduced many new features and eliminated old functionality. Here is a month-by-month review of changes that most affected users, marketers and developers on the platform in 2011.

January

Redesigned Profiles
Facebook started the year with a new look for profile pages. With Timeline on everyone’s minds now, it can be easy to forget that 12 months ago the social network had redesigned profiles to include more photos and information at a glance, eliminating the horizontal tab structure that had been in place since 2008.

All-in-One Messaging
Users began to get access to the new Messages product, which groups all direct messages between users whether they are viewing a conversation from the inbox, chat window or mobile.

Sponsored Stories
In an effort to make advertising more relevant by including social context, Facebook introduced Sponsored Stories that allow advertisers to pay to promote activity on the site, such as likes or check-ins. The company added more Sponsored Story types in April and June.

Memorable Status Updates
Perhaps hinting at the nostalgia-inducing Timeline to come later in the year, Facebook began displaying users’ status updates and stories from the past.

Secure Browsing
Facebook started giving users the option of accessing Facebook over an encrypted connection and encouraged developers to obtain a Secure Sockets Layer certificate to make their iframe apps accessible to users with secure browsing enabled. Since then, the company has prompted users to switch to HTTPS and made SSL certificates mandatory for all developers.

February

Page Redesign
Page owners got a number of new features to help them manage their communities. These included activity notifications, “Use Facebook as a Page,” and a spam filter for comments. Fan pages were also designed to look more like the new user profiles and place pages, which displayed applications vertically on the left hand side rather than in tabs across the top. Advertisers also gained the option of driving ads to any landing tab, not just the default.

Improved Like Button 
Clicking the Like Button began sharing full-sized stories in the News Feed rather than the one-line Recent Activity stories it previously generated. This along with the Send button that came in April have replaced the Share button, which Facebook no longer supports.

Real-Time Commenting
Facebook made commenting more like chat by removing the “Post” button and instead publishing comments after a user hits “enter” on the keyboard. Since this leads to more accidental comments, Facebook later began giving users a 12-second window to edit their comment.

March

Questions
After a Q&A product similar to Quora never made it out of beta in 2010, Facebook relaunched Questions as a poll feature aimed at helping users get recommendations from their friends. Pages began using the feature to engage their fans with questions that had a more viral effect than plain-text posts.

Deals Subscription Service
Facebook seemed to be taking on Groupon when it began a new pre-paid deals service for users in select cities, but it discontinued the test in August.

April

Updated Groups
Ahead of the rumored Google+ launch, Facebook made improvements to its Groups product aimed at helping people share with subsets of their friends. Most notably, group admins gained the ability to approve people before they are added to the group. Users could now also upload photo albums or ask Questions within groups.

Send Button
The Send button was introduced as a way for people to share articles and third-party websites with groups of friends, whereas the Like button posts to all a users’ friends.

May

New Ad Analytics
Facebook made several changes to its advertising analytics dashboard to focus on performance indicators such as Page Likes, app installs and social reach, rather than older online advertising metrics such as CPM.

Recommend This Place
The social network implemented a recommendation box on place pages (and fan pages that included an address) so that users can share their opinions about a location or a business.

Tag Pages in Photos
Users and pages gained the ability to tag other pages in photos they share on the site. This increases the reach of any given photo and builds additional connections between users and pages.

June

Happening Now: Prelude to Ticker
Facebook began testing a “Happening Now” module on the right hand side of the page. This later became the Ticker, which shows more recent activity from your friends, including comments, page likes and now Open Graph activity like listening to a song in Spotify.

July

Mandatory Credits
All developers on the Facebook platform became required to use Credits as the sole payment option for their social games. The company had announced a July 1 deadline at the beginning of the year and then added additional payment options and feedback channels for developers over the next few months to support the transition.

Video Calling and Group Chat
Teaming up with Skype, Facebook integrated video calling into its chat product. The social network also expanded group chat to friends who were not already in designated groups. Users can now add any friend to a chat conversation.

August

Revised Privacy Controls
The company simplified its privacy settings page and moved controls to the profile editor and news feed publisher. Users also gained the ability to approve tags in photos, check-ins and statuses.

Canvas App Page Changes

Facebook made several changes to the Canvas Page, bookmarking and games stories in the news feed in order to improve game discovery, retention and user experience. The redesign added a real-time activity ticker dedicated to stories about a user’s friends engaging with games.

Expanded Ads API
Facebook brought its ad API out of private beta and began allowing more developers to build tools and services that programmatically create, buy and manage Facebook ad campaigns.

Standalone Messenger App
Moving away from its all-in-one mobile application strategy, Facebook released Messenger as a separate app to rival texting and group chat alternatives.

New Locations App for Pages
Some corporations gained access to a beta product that allows them to designate multiple locations under a parent page and include a store finder on the page.

September

Timeline
At F8, Facebook unveiled a new version of user profiles that organizes stories in a timeline format, giving users the option to add life events to any point in their personal history.

Open Graph Application Platform
Along with Timeline, the company announced a new way to connect people and objects beyond the Like button. Developers will be able to make apps that let users share what they are reading, watching, listening to, cooking and more. Along with this comes “frictionless sharing” and additional avenues for app discovery.

Reconfigured News Feed
To accommodate this new type of Open Graph app, Facebook redesigned the home page to include News Feed and Ticker.

Subscribe
Facebook introduced a new one-way follow dynamic with its Subscribe button. Users can subscribe to the public updates of anyone who allows subscribers. This gives the social network a way to compete with Twitter and Google+.

Smart Lists
The social network introduced Smart Lists to automatically group users’ friends by location, workplace and school. As users become comfortable with Facebook grouping friends automatically, we could see Facebook’s algorithms creating more nuanced lists that compete with Google’s Circles feature.

October

Mobile Platform
After much speculation, the company unveiled a way to help mobile developers market their native and HTML5-based apps through its platform. Developers can now take advantage of bookmarks, requests and the news feed in the same way that Facebook canvas developers do.

Talking About This
Facebook added a new public metric to pages called “Talking About This.” This metric encourages pages to think about engagement, not just accumulating Likes.

iPad Application
Facebook released its official iPad app after months of leaks and rumors about its development.

November

Sponsored Stories in Ticker
The social network began showing Sponsored Story ads in the Ticker, signaling more lines being blurred between paid and organic content in the future. The company later told us Sponsored Story ads will be shown within the News Feed starting in 2012.

December

Timeline Goes Live
Facebook began its global release of the Timeline profile developers had gotten a preview of at F8. Timeline is still opt-in for users until sometime in early 2012. The company also debuted Timeline on mobile devices for the first time.

Coupon Test
We discovered Facebook testing a new coupon post feature for pages that could have big implications for next year. Pages that are part of this beta can offer discounts and promote them with Sponsored Stories.

Private Message Test
We have also seen the social network testing a way for users to privately message page owners. This, too, could have a big impact for people using Facebook for business in 2012.

Facebook Deepens Windows App Integrations With Skype-to-Facebook, Messenger Client

Facebook is deepening its integration with Windows through a new Skype-to-Facebook feature and a Messenger client for Windows 7 that allows users to access the Ticker, Chat and Notifications.

The Skype-to-Facebook functionality, found in the Skype 5.4 Beta for Mac and Skype 5.7 Beta for Windows released last week, allows users to make Skype calls to one another without leaving Facebook. In order to use the feature, users must link their Skype and Facebook accounts and then launch calls from a video call button that appears after selecting a Facebook friend. Facebook first introduced Skype integrations this year, several months before Microsoft acquired Skype in October.

Facebook’s Messenger client for Windows 7 is a bit more involved, enabling users to access three core real-time features of the Facebook platform directly from their desktops. TechCrunch has confirmed that the client is currently in limited beta on the platform and is wholly developed by Facebook — not as part of a new partnership with Microsoft. Facebook has been experimenting with different ways to package Chat in native apps in the past year, including launching a standalone mobile group chat app for iOS, Android and BlackBerry in August.

It may be worth noting that these features move Facebook further into territory that Google has expanded into in recent years as well, while Google is still trying to get Google+ growing to larger scale.

Chat Alert Notifies Users When a Specific Facebook Friend Goes Online

Chat Alert is a simple application that informs users when selected friends become available to chat with on Facebook. A common feature of some other instant messaging services, Chat Alert provides provides a service not available on Facebook Chat. The app is free up to a certain point, and then begins to charge users a certain number of Credits to follow more friends.

The app allows users to add up to 10 friends free of charge and receive alerts when they are available to chat. Alerts can sent to users via email, Facebook Message or SMS.

A user’s friends need not register for Chat Alert in order for the app to work and a single alert will be sent per friend who logs into chat. Users may also customize these alerts within the app itself.

Unless one is logged into chat, there is no way of telling when a friend becomes available to instant message with. Even when logged in, it’s easy to miss someone appearing in the buddy list. Given that users often have hundreds of friends, constantly logging in and out of chat and scrolling to see who’s online just to find a specific friend is inefficient. While only a niche of users may require its services, Chat Alert fulfills its purpose effectively.

Platform Update: New Bug System and Platform Live Status Page, Credits Features, Event APIs

Over the past week and a half, Facebook has posted to the Developers Blog announcing several new tools, protocols and capabilities for developers. These include

  • Better ways to submit bugs and track the API heath of the Platform,
  • Changes to the DealSpot and Games Dashboard Featured Status incentives for developers who have integrated Facebook Credits
  • A migration system where breaking changes are only pushed on the first day of the month
  • Support for OAuth 2.0 with XMPP
  • The deprecation of Auth 1.0 and the FB.Data call
  • The ability to manage Events and upload high-resolution photos via the Graph API
  • A more direct way for games to handle link clicks on the canvas page
  • The option to detect and control flash object visibility in apps

New Platform Tools

The Facebook Platform Live Status page has been redesigned and augmented with new functionality. Developers now see the current health of the Platform and when the latest JSON push was completed, followed by a list of the five latest Platform issues and graphs of the average API response time and error count.
Additionally, developers can hook their apps up to a feed of the JSON pushes so they can set their apps to begin automated testing once a push has completed. This will help developers ensure their tests are being performed on the latest code.
Facebook is replacing the Bugzilla bug tracking system developed by Mozilla with its own system that won’t require a separate log in. Developers will first see the top 20 trending bugs and options to search for, browse, and filter bugs by phrase or tag. Once devs have found a report about their bug they can subscribe to email updates, notify Facebook they’re experience it too, discuss workaround with other developers.
In order to speed up the resolution process, devs must include repro steps including IDs and access tokens in order to add a new bug report. Bugzilla is now read-only so devs should begin using the new Bugs tool. Slow bug resolution has been one of the biggest problems with the Platform. By developing a system that reduces the number of redundant bug reports and relieves the Facebook team from having to reach out and ask for repro steps, the site may be able resolve bugs more efficiently.

High Level Changes

On October 14th, Facebook will open to all Facebook Credits developers several of the special incentive features that were initially used to encourage early adoption of Credits as a currency and payment method.

Developers will gain the ability to target specific demographics with DealSpot, a TrialPay-developed system that shows in-game icons leading to offers users can complete to earn Facebook Credits. DealSpot presents offers to users that might not have visited the offer wall, so developers looking to augment sales of virtual goods with another revenue stream should strongly consider activating the feature.

All developers will also gain access to broad category targeting, which lets them target Facebook Ads to users based on their interest in anything related to a selected topic. Facebook actually began testing this feature in April as an alternative to targeting specific keywords. The ability to target all social gamers rather than just fans or the Pages of certain games, Broad Category Interest targeting could help developers attain more new customers with less effort spent on ad targeting.

Facebook’s free marketing system known as Games Dashboard Featured Status and Social Placements will also become available to developers of games integrated with Credits. Games eligible for the promotions are “evaluated on a case by case basis, such as for game quality, genre and new functionality”. The system will be especially helpful to developers that are building great games but that don’t have big marketing budgets.

Recently, Facebook announced that developers would have a minimum of 90 days between the announcement of a breaking change and its implementation. To make adapting to these changes more predictable, Facebook now says it will only push breaking changes on the first day of any given month. This will reduce stress for developers, since they won’t have to worry that they may have missed an announcement about a breaking change that could suddenly take their app down.

For example, Facebook announced on September 16th that the FB.Data calls for waiting until specific queries were completed to perform an action will be deprecated. As such, the FB.Data calls will be deprecated on the first day of the month following the minimum 90 day period, January 1st, 2012.

Developers of XMPP Facebook Chat clients can now begin migrating to OAuth 2.0. They can use access tokens over SSL rather than sig and session_key parameters. As such, Facebook will deprecate Auth.promotesession on October 1st. The move to OAuth 2.0 will protect Chat clients from some types of data leaks.

A reminder, mandatory migration to OAuth 2.0 is coming on October 1st. Developers will need to have switched to the new JavaScript and PHP SDKs by then.

Specific Changes

Developers can now manage invite lists and check RSVP status for Events using the Graph API in addition to creating and deleting Events. This could help developers create powerful interfaces for professional event managers, or create an Events dashboard for users.

Facebook improved its Photos product last month, increasing the maximum photo size from 760 to 920 pixels. Photos uploaded through the Graph API can now have a maximum size of 920 pixels as well. However, photos returned through the API will still have a maximum size of 720 pixels, so there are no actual changes to what’s received from the API or FQL. The change will keep users from abandoning photo upload and editing apps when they want to upload high resolution photos.

By using FB.Canvas.SetUrlHandler, developers can now select to have clicks of links related to their apps from ticker stories, bookmarks, bookmark drop-down Requests and Request Notification stories be handled in-line in the apps. Previously, these clicks would needlessly redirect a user when they were already viewing the app the link led to.

For example, if an app employs FB.Canvas.SetUrlHandler, a user who clicks on a ‘your move’ Request or an achievement story while already viewing the app that published the Request or story wouldn’t be sent to the corresponding URL, but would be brought to the corresponding screen within the app. This should decrease load times and bounces from users clicking links on the Canvas page.

Flash applications using wmode=”window” rather than the recommended wmode=”opaque” can now pass a callback function to hideFlashCallback to FB.init to customize the visibility of flash elements when popups are shown. Previously, Flash objects could become hidden when popups were shown.

Facebook Adds “More Online Friends” to Chat, Returning the Complete Buddy List

Facebook has returned to showing users their complete buddy list in Chat with the addition of a “More Online Friends” section. Now users see their closest and recently interacted with friends at the top of the Chat buddy list, and can independently scroll down the Chat bar to view the online statuses of all remaining friends. Update: The change has since been confirmed by the Facebook Twitter account.

Facebook redesigned its instant messaging system last month such that instead of showing the online status of all of a user’s friends, it only showed around 20 of a user’s closest or most recently interacted with friends. The only way to determine the online status of other friends was search. Some users complained, and we wrote an article discussing the merits of being able to easily Chat with all friends, even distant acquaintances.

The change will allow users to quickly start conversations with the friends they Chat with most, but still be able to send Chats to the rest of their friends without conducting time consuming individual searches. The modification also shows Facebook is listening to feedback on product changes, despite some believing it ignores its users.

Typically when Facebook changes its interface, a small but vocal minority denounces it and demands Facebook revert to an older version. Often it’s not so much that the functionality is worse, but that it’s different than users are accustomed to and they don’t want to adopt a new behavior pattern. But with so many users and a readily available medium for sharing their discontent, a fraction of the user base can make it seem like there is larger disapproval.

Facebook has come to expect this, giving users time to adjust and looking at the actual usage data before considering whether additional changes are necessary. It famously watched hundreds of thousands of users protest the addition of the news feed to the home page, only to see it become one of the site’s most popular features.

In this case, though, press criticism, analysis of the design, and possibly the data pointed to users preferring the option to see the online status of all of their friends without having to search one-by-one. Users now get the best parts of both the old design and recent redesign: prominent access to their closest friends alongside options to scroll through all their friends and search for particular ones.

The re-redesign should be especially helpful for users with large numbers of friends that had many hidden from view in the previous design. It will help users reconnect with those they don’t interact with often, and make it easier to know who could be invited to an ad hoc group chat.

Users may also notice a new mobile phone icon next to some friends. This indicates that person is available to chat via Facebook’s new standalone push notification-delivered group chat iPhone and Android app Facebook Messenger, or the Chat-enabled primary Facebook mobile apps like Facebook for iPhone or BlackBerry. The icon will help users determine that it may be better to send shorter, simple messages rather than links or attachments that are more difficult to consume via mobile device.

The addition of “More Online Friends” to Chat should serve to improve Facebook’s relations with its users. It could rally users to be more vocal about future redesigns in hopes of attaining a similar outcome, but at least they know Facebook isn’t deaf to the opinions of those it serves.

[Thanks to Kevin Evanetski for being the first to tip us to this.]

Facebook Messenger: a New Standalone Group Messaging Mobile App Built Off Beluga

Facebook has just launched a new free standalone mobile group messaging app for iPhone and Android called Facebook Messenger. It allows users to conduct one-on-one or group conversations, send photos, and privately share their location. Messages are delivered via push notifications to those with the app, and SMS, Facebook Chat, or Facebook Messages to those without it. The app heavily incorporates functionality and design from group messaging app Beluga, which Facebook acquired in March, and whose founders headed development.

Facebook Messenger should help users coordinate meetups and find each other, increase usage of Facebook’s direct communication channels, and compete with GroupMe and Fast Society. This is the first standalone app from the social network, which otherwise aggregates all its functionality into its primary “Facebook for…” native apps. This and leaked information about a standalone photo sharing app indicate that Facebook has recognized the demand for more lightweight, streamlined, specialized mobile apps.

A Shift to Standalone Apps

The integrated messaging platform Facebook launched in November unified Chat, Messages, mobile push notifications, and email, allowing users to have a seamless conversation regardless of what interface the participants were using. Other group messaging apps still worked better though, prompting Facebook to acquire Beluga, which already had a strong Facebook integration. Facebook Messenger goes one step further, allowing users to add contacts from their phone who they aren’t Facebook friends with to a conversation via SMS. While other group messaging apps, including Beluga, pay third-party cloud communication service Twilio to convert API calls into SMS, Facebook has built its own in-house SMS syndication system.

Before Messenger, users of Facebook’s mobile interfaces had to go through several clicks to check their Messages inbox. Ben Davenport, former co-founder and CEO of Beluga who also previously worked at Google, explained the need for a standalone app: “Messaging is so core to what people do on the phone. It has to be on the desktop. It needs to be fast and go directly in. Speed matters, because people are brutal when choosing communication tools.”

Messenger definitely lets you get to what you need in a single click, something its competitors previously had as an advantage over Facebook’s all-in-one apps. But with Facebook offering so many different features, a proliferation of standalone apps could lead more of a user’s home screen to be filled with Facebook than they want. In June, plans for a standalone Facebook mobile photo sharing app leaked. Facebook will need to make tough decisions about whether other features, such as Events, would work well as standalone apps.

Facebook isn’t promoting the app with any news feed stories about those who install Messenger, and the indication on the web interface that a message was sent from Messenger don’t link to the download page. Still, being branded with the Facebook name and its inherent virality could help it quickly grow to have millions of users. By launching before Google+ Huddles can gain traction, other group messaging apps can get any more popular, and as RIM with its BlackBerry Messenger stumbles, Facebook could be the first to take cross-medium group messaging mainstream.

Facebook Messenger Functionality

Once users have downloaded Facebook Messenger from the App Store or Android Marketplace and logged in, they’ll see all their existing Facebook inbox conversations imported. Users can start a conversation by adding one or more of their Facebook friends or phone numbers from their phone’s contacts. If someone is both a friend and a contact, users can select where to deliver the conversation’s messages. The app can help users save money on their mobile phone bill by allowing them to sidestep use of SMS while still sending real-time messages.

One of the most useful features is the option to click an arrow icon and include one’s current location with a message via a push-pinned map. This will make it easy for friends to find each other, especially in crowded public spaces such as parks or concert where meeting up is the goal but giving directions in text is difficult. Location is kept private within a conversation, and not published to Facebook via Places.

Other Facebook Messenger users can view a map within the app showing the locations of all conversation participants that have shared the info, or opt to click through to the Google Maps mobile app and get directions. Those receiving messages via Facebook’s web interface can open a Bing Map of the location from their inbox, but those accessing messages through Facebook’s primary mobile apps or m.facebook.com can’t see locations of others.

Users may also share photos with their messages. One thing lacking in Messenger that’s available in the primary mobile apps is the ability to search within or across conversations.

Push notifications alert users to new messages when they aren’t using the app. If this gets too noisy, though, they can mute all their conversations or specific ones temporarily or indefinitely.

To organize conversations, users can add a title and photo. To protect privacy, if users try to add more people to a one-on-one conversation, the message history is cleared. If they add additional participants to an existing conversation, they’re warned that these new people will be able see the conversation’s history.

Most of Facebook’s acquisitions have been talent-driven, or led to more subtle integrations of existing products. In this case, though, Facebook found a great service it didn’t offer, bought it, re-skinned it, wired it into its own system, and five months later it has significant new value to offer users. The sleek interface and deep integration into one of the world’s most popular instant messaging services could make Facebook Messenger an important part of every day communication.

>Read more about How Beluga Metamorphosed Into Facebook Messenger, including an interview with Lucy Zhang of the Messenger and Beluga teams, at Inside Mobile Apps

Facebook’s Relevance-Filtered Chat Buddy List, or, Why Users Don’t Know Who’s Online

Since the Skype Video Calling and Chat redesign launch a month ago, you may have noticed something missing from your Facebook home page. The Facebook Chat buddy list now only shows you the online status of a subset of your closest or most recently interacted with friends, around 20 on a screen of average size and resolution. You can only determine if the rest of your friends are available to Chat by searching for them one by one.

The redesign makes a bad tradeoff. Quick access to Chat with best friends is helpful, but search is far too inefficient a method of determining the online status of other friends. It’s unlikely that users will ever strike up a casual conversation with anyone outside of the buddy list. This is unfortunate, because it’s the ability to stay in touch more distant acquaintances that makes Facebook special.

Update: Facebook has returned the ability to view the online statuses of all friends by adding a “More Online Friends” section in Chat.

We asked Facebook why Chat has been redesigned like this, and Director of Product Peter Deng told us, “The goal of the new design is to give more people faster access to the friends they message most. Looking at the early data of how people are engaging with and using Chat, things are moving in this direction.”

Sure, people spend most of their time Chatting with close friends or people they frequently need to exchange information with, such as co-workers or teammates. The new design makes it very easy to start talking with a friend whose wall you recently posted on, profile you’ve been perusing, or that you Chatted with yesterday.

The intelligent sorting algorithm isn’t perfect, though. For example, I see friends I haven’t interacted with in months, while best friends, people I frequently see in person, and those who’ve recently Liked my status updates remain hidden. With time the algorithm could improve, but now if I’m visiting New York City and want to ask several local friends where I should go for lunch, searching one-by-one to see if they’re online is a ton of work. I’ll probably forget to search for someone who might have the recommendation I need.

A quick glance at the unfiltered Chat buddy list on one of Facebook’s mobile apps reveals the friends that are missing, that I might have asked for advice or invited to dinner if it wasn’t so difficult to figure out if they were available to Chat.

The relevance-filtered buddy list is an especially big problem for users with abnormally high friend counts. Facebook says the average user has 130 friends (though we hear it’s closer to 180 now), and for those people perhaps only a handful of online friends don’t appear on the buddy list. If a use has 500 or 1000 friends, though, the number of missing friends is much more significant, recalling names from such a large set is difficult, and searching one friend at time takes far too long to be feasible.

Its these power users and early adopters that are posting updates, tagging photos, and driving total time on site for Facebook. These are the same people that could lead their graphs to another social network if they got fed up with Facebook, so it’s in the site’s interest to keep them happy.

Facebook should implement a combination of the relevance-filtered and complete buddy list, similar to how the news feed has tabs for Top News and Most Recent. The site has considered ways of eliminating the tabbed news feed because some users never leave the default Top News tab, but the buddy list is not an endless stream, it can be easily displayed in its entirety.

By default, the tabbed buddy list could show users the relevance-filtered list, so the most frequent Chat use cases wouldn’t require any buddy list scrolling to initiate. Then let users click to view their full buddy list. Search could be left in to help those with massive buddy lists, or scrapped for a cleaner design.

With a global user base topping 750 million that includes social butterflies and grandparents just looking to share with their kids, pleasing everyone is no simple task. More options make things more complicated, so in most situations, design that work for the majority are best. But when sleek, algorithmic-focused design creates more friction than it removes, one extra link or button may be the answer. In this case, I hope the answer is “See all online friends”.

Update: Read how Facebook fixed this issue with Chat by adding a “More Online Friends” section to Chat that allows users to view the online status of all of your friends.

Facebook Launching Ad Hoc Group Chat, New Chat Design, Skype Video Calling

CEO Mark Zuckerberg today announced that Facebook would be launching several new features, including ad hoc group chat, a new design for its Chat interface, and a Skype integration to allow for video calling. These features are already live for some users, and the global roll out to the rest of the user base will happen quickly.

Ad Hoc Group Chat

Users will be able to choose multiple friends and begin a Group Chat instantly, without previously having created a Group with those friends. While Chatting with one friend, a drop down will allow users to “Add Friends to Chat”. This opens a type ahead, with each entered friend being added to the conversation. This way, rather than having to purposefully start a group chat, it can organically grow out of a standard one-on-one chat.

If added users are online, they’ll see messages as Chat. Otherwise, the group chat messages will appear in their inbox. Group chat also works with Facebook’s mobile interfaces, in the sense that mobile users can be added to a group chat and see messages from all other participants, though they won’t be able to add new people to the conversation.

Facebook has taken precautions to alleviate privacy issues that could arise from one user adding others to a private one-on-one conversation that might contain sensitive content. Project Manager Peter Deng tells us that, “When you take a one-on-one chat and turn it into a Group chat, you don’t bring over the Chat history. You have a clean slate. People can add to that, but by then they know they’re not talking one-on-one.”

Facebook explained that 50% of users are already using its Groups feature, with an average of seven users per group. The pre-made group chat feature was apparently very popular, and the company figured that making the feature available ad hoc between friends who weren’t already in a Group together would further increase usage.

New Chat Design

“It’s been hard to start a conversation before”, says Deng. Now, Facebook will snap on a Chat sidebar if there is enough room in a user’s browser, making it easier to browse Facebook while Chatting. “This makes it so users who have wide enough screens will have an easier time initiating conversations” says Zuckerberg.

Deng tells us that the goal was to make Chat more a part of the browser. “As you’re browsing Facebook, conversations with friends will always be one click away.”

The new sidebar Chat design also includes a more prominent iteration of an older feature called “Limit Availability on Chat”. This allows users to select which of their friend lists they appear available for Chat to. They can select to appear available or unavailable to different lists.

Previously, users had to select which lists to show in chat, and then click on a green pill icon to become available or unavailable to friends in that list. With how buried and difficult to understand this feature was, it probably wasn’t used very often.

The new design presents users with a clear “Limit Availability” option within the Chat panel. The added prominence of this form of privacy settings may be able to combat a major issue with the Chat product – – the desire to not be interrupted. Users can Chat with close friends without being interrupted by those they’re less familiar with. Alternatively, users can Chat only with their professional contacts or co-workers during the day. By being able to select exactly who one appears available to in an intuitive way, users may be more comfortable leaving Chat on.

Skype Video Calling

The Facebook Skype video calling feature will require users to download a plugin. However, if a user hasn’t installed the video chat plugin, they’ll be able to receive an invite to a video call, download the plugin on the spot, and begin video calling. This is different from traditional Skype where both users need to have downloaded Skype before hand.

Video calling can be reached from a new Call button on a friend’s profile or from the Chat panel. Users see a “Set up video calling” prompt within Facebook, click to accept, and the 29 kb plugin downloads and installs within the browser. Users can then begin their video call. A recipient receives an alert that they’re being called, and can then accept or decline.

The video call window is a separate browser window from Facebook, meaning users can browse around Facebook or other websites while carrying on a video call. Users can select to mute themselves or change their audio input options.

Update: Facebook has set up a landing page for video calling that allows users who haven’t received the roll out of the feature to gain access. A Help Center article about video calling also includes some more details:

  • If  a user video calls a friend who has a microphone but not a webcam, they’ll be able transmit video and audio to them and just receive audio back. If you have a webcam, you can’t turn it off to make an audio call.
  • A log of the time and date of a video call appears in the inbox conversation between two users, but audio and video are not recorded.
  • Video calling works with a variety of browsers, but only Mac and Windows operating systems. Linux is not supported.
  • If a user calls a friend who isn’t available at the time, they can record and send them a video message that will appear in their inbox, and a log of the missed call will appear there too.
  • While video calling with a friend, users can also text chat with them and other friends. However, users can only video call with one friend at a time

Zuckerberg says that Facebook will begin with one-on-one video calling. However, there may be potential for group video calling in the future. Tony Bates, Skype’s CEO, says that his company is ”considering having Skype paid products within the [Facebook] product.”

In fact, Skype’s consumer head head of consumer product Neil Stevens says that soon users will be able to click on highlighted phone numbers within Facebook to initiate a Skype voice call with them. This will be a paid service, though its unclear whether users will pay Skype directly or purchase calling minutes with Facebook Credits. Other features in the works include Facebook to Skype client calling and group video calling.

Previously, Facebook had worked with Skype to add features from the news feed into Skype’s desktop software. This new partnership between Skype and Facebook worked such that Skype built the downloadable plugin, and Facebook worked on the user flow and getting two people connected as quickly as possible once they’ve sent a video call request.

Phillip Su, the feature’s engineer, tells us it should not present a traffic issue that could cause Facebook to load slower because 95-98% of the traffic of a video calls passes peer-to-peer, and not through Facebook.

Su tells us that the majority of Facebook’s web users connect via broadband, so video calls should run at relatively high definition most of the time. However, Skype’s technology will degrade video quality when necessary but always maintain the audio feed in order to “preserve the impression of continuous connection” says Su.

The video call feature has been in development since before Microsoft moved to acquire Skype. It was also being prepared before Google launched its video call feature Hangouts. Deng tells us “we’re in the business of giving users the best features we have available”, and that this was ready, so the company launched it. However, we’ve heard rumors that the feature could have been even better if given more development time, so perhaps launch was accelerated to prevent Google from gaining a lead in the space.

Deng tells us that Facebook will be watching the level of adoption and user behavior for all of the new products, and will then determine where to go next in terms of features and presentation.

Facebook Partners With RockMelt to Outsource Development of Social Web Browser

Third-party social web browser developer RockMelt announced today that it has established a long-term partnership with Facebook’s engineering and design teams to build the newly released RockMelt Beta 3 and future products. Along with an improved Chat and integrated Notifications, Requests, and Messages experience, Facebook.com appears differently when browsed through the new version of RockMelt, with elements including Chat and alerts hidden from view since they appear in the browser.

The partnership with the 40-employee RockMelt will allow Facebook to guide the development of a web browser without expending nearly as many resources as would have taken to release one itself. It could also lend legitimacy to RockMelt, which says it has only had 1 million people try its product to date, though its few hundred thousand active users log an average of 6.5 hours a day on the product.

Six months ago RockMelt launched the private beta of its social web browser, designed to pull frequently used parts of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs inside the browser chrome. Beta2 saw the addition of multi-friend Chat support, further updates allow it to pull in data from YouTube and RSS, and the public beta launched 10 weeks ago.

User adoption of the Andressen-Horowitz-backed project or other social browsers such as Wowd has yet to explode. Still, founders Eric Vishria and Tim Howes are optimistic. “Over 500 million people have switched browsers in the last three years,” they told us. “81% of our users are 34 or younger. For those in the social generation, it just makes sense. Conversion rates and retention are high. They just get it.”

A deeper integration with Facebook offering unique value could kickstart growth.”There’s no way this release would happen without them,” Vishria and Howes told us. “We’re interacting with them five times a day to get this done.” Though Facebook is hiring for a Seattle-based desktop software team, RockMelt said it was working with a Palo Alto team from Facebook headquarters. This may support our prediction that Facebook’s desktop team isn’t building a browser, but instead software such as media usage scrobbling widgets that will help users share their music listening and video watching habits.

RockMelt Beta3′s New Features

Downloadable starting at 10am PST today, RockMelt Beta3 features several new features that allow browser chrome customization and streamline social experiences. Users can now swap the dock-like App Edge and the buddy list-esque Friend Edge between the left and right rails of the browser. The Friend Edge can be clicked to expand and show the names of friends instead of just their profile pictures, which can be hard to identify.

When a friend in the Friend Edge is clicked, it starts a Facebook Chat with them that automatically imports your Chat history. RockMelt Beta3 works with Facebook’s unified messaging product to seamlessly switch from Messages to Chat if a friend is online. A user’s Notifications, Requests, and Messages all appear in the top center of the chrome with counters denoting new activity.

Perhaps most interesting though is what Facebook’s team has done to change Facebook.com when visited through RockMelt. Rather than appear redundant, a user’s Chat buddy list and alerts don’t appear on the site, only in the browser. Clicking within Facebook to initiate a Chat opens the Chat in RockMelt instead, so users can carry on the conversation even as they browse other sites.

Outsourcing the Facebook Browser

Vishria and Howes tell us RockMelt Beta3 is “the beginning of what the modern browser looks like”. They say there’s many more social features to build out as part of the Facebook partnership, including “creating an unbelievable photo experience, Places, Like integrations — we’re constantly brainstorming and collaborating.” The companies may have been connected by Marc Andressen, both a Facebook board member and a core RockMelt investor who believes RockMelt could be the fifth browser to reach over 100 million users.

RockMelt’s 40-person engineering and design-focused team builds on Google’s Chromium open source browser which has 200 devs, which is turn built on WebKit that has its own army of open source devs. Without an overwhelming user demand for social browsers, developing one internally could be a strategic misstep for Facebook, but working with RockMelt might accomplish similar goals much more efficiently. This way, Facebook can work on more crucial or unexpected projects while still keeping its small size and startup culture.

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