Weekend Tech Blog: Facebook, your new phone company?

Facebook phoning, and Magic Jack, get a little attention, as does a popular sports video camera developed here in Seattle.

Facebook phoning, and Magic Jack, get a little attention, as does a popular sports video camera developed here in Seattle.

Could Facebook be your new phone company?

Let’s start with one staggeringly impressive number, announced by Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg this week at a press conference in Palo Alto: 700 million people are signed up to Facebook. Do the math: that’s roughly 1 in every 8 people on the planet.

Building the Facebook user base over the last 5 years has been the company's initial step, Zuckerberg noted.  "I just think you're going to start seeing all these different companies building on top of that," he said, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.   

Then came news billboarded as “awesome” prior to the press conference: you can now make free video calls in Facebook. Skype, now being purchased by Microsoft for $8.5 billion, is being imbedded in Facebook to enable the free call service. If you have contacts on Facebook with web cameras, if they have live chat enabled and have a webcam, it’s virtually as simple to use as point-and-click.

Microsoft and Facebook have much in common, including Microsoft’s $240 million equity stake in Facebook, the Journal noted. Facebook gains access to a world-class video service, while Microsoft gains access to the world's largest social network.

And Business Insider reports that Facebook users will be able to call any outside phone line, at the pennies per minute Skype prices.

If you take at face value Zuckerberg's words about building businesses on the Facebook social base, the ramifications are, well, gigantic. Don’t kid yourself: This has gone way beyond being a leisure-time diversion. Skype's website notes that Skype had roughly 145 million connected users in late 2010, and Skype users made 207 billion minutes of voice and video calls; approximately 42 percent were video calls.  

Melding that Skype base into Facebook, opening the doors to both free and paid services to Facebook users, has the potential to shake every phone service on earth to its roots. Facebook and Skype are already global names, available for every computer and cell phone. What happens if the public starts taking this Facebook video/phone/messaging service seriously?

Speculation like this is common when any new tech development is introduced. Few if any instances, however, come with a single company having the clout to reach roughly 13 percent of the world's population in an instant. How scary is that? How … tempting … is that?

Did you know Facebook has its own money system? It’s called Facebook Credits, and consumers can buy virtual goods in games such as FarmVille, an online game played by 38 million players. That's more people than the entire population of Canada. Facebook acts like a bank, both collecting revenue and disbursing it to game developers.  It’s relatively small potatoes now, but what else could it be a bank for, given the reality that there are enough people in the Facebook ecosystem to use those credits as a medium of exchange?  

These are uncharted waters for Facebook. Who knows where it could go, or will land?

Social networking was also top of mind at Google, which introduced a Facebook competitor called Google+.  It’s in testing/invitation-only mode, but early tech bloggers see the new service as well worth watching.  And the new Google+ will also include a group video chat service called “Hangouts” — a service Facebook currently lacks — that allows friends to literally hang out together on one site, then join in for a live group video chat. “Until teleportation arrives, it’s the next best thing,” the Google website claims.

* * *

Speaking of computer-based phones, I've been dunned to death for several years by those incessant TV ads for Magic Jack … so I decided to pay for play, and found myself pleasantly surprised by the results.

The initial cost is $39.95 — well, $47, counting shipping and handling — for which you receive a matchbook-sized unit that plugs into a USB computer port.  A landline plugs into the other end of the unit. Any phone unit in your house will work when plugged into Magic Jack.

Dialing is simple: area code, a 7-digit number, and the phone rings away.  (Local calls also require an area code.) 

I tried using both a standard phone and a computer headset, and found the phone quality much improved with the headset. The calls sometimes take longer to connect — it’s using computer networks rather than phone company connections — but once the call is connected, the quality is good. If you phone someone who requires that the caller be identified, you're out of luck; Magic Jack calls show up on caller IDs as "unidentified."

One factor distinguishing Magic Jack from Skype and other computer based operations is the price — and then only if you make a significant number of phone calls.  If you make hundreds of domestic calls per month from your landline phone, then Magic Jack's one-time annual cost might save you money.  If you make relatively few calls, most other domestic service charge about 2 cents per minute: e.g., $1.20 for a one-hour conversation.  In that case, savings are minimal.

It’s on outside-U.S. calls that Magic Jack could make a difference: you pay an annual fee for unlimited domestic calls while the other services charge for calls.

Skype, for example, charges $3 monthly for unlimited U.S. and Canada calls, and $8 monthly for adding Mexico.  Unlimited world calls are available for $14 monthly.  By contrast, Magic Jack is $20 annually for all U.S./Canada calls.  For other international calls you may make from Magic Jack, you need to buy pre-paid minutes.

Traveling overseas is one area where Magic Jack may offer you an advantage: the ability to make free Jack-to-Jack calls from any PC or Mac computer without downloading any software. Theoretically, if you’re in Biratnagar, Nepal, and with no laptop in tow, you should be able to call Seattle for free from any computer so long as the one you’re calling also has a Jack.

* * *

Ever ridden a bike, or skied, or skydived, or even walked the streets of a foreign country, and wished you had a video record of exactly what you were seeing?

That’s precisely what Seattle-based Contour Camera provides: a relatively inexpensive point-of-view HD video camera starting at $250 that you can strap on your handlebars, helmet, or around your head to capture point-of-view images that make you, or others viewing the images, feel as though you’re right there in the moment with you.

In 2003, there was no Contour camera. There was only Marc Barros, a Issaquah native, and an idea hatched by him and some buddies at the University of Washington for a video-based  rear-view mirror for motorcycles. The idea was good enough for them to win roughly $16,000 in the UW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) competition, sponsored by the Foster School of Business, which promotes entrepreneurship to anyone from undergrads to PhD candidates.  

As it turned out, however, customers were more interested in recording video rather than just watching, and the idea morphed into developing a wearable camera: the first iteration of what has morphed into the current camera line.  

Barros and company co-founder Jason Green broke away from their colleagues and started producing cameras from off-the-shelf parts, assembled by hand in an unheated warehouse in Montlake Terrace. The initial cameras were little more than a lens connected by wires to a camcorder and battery pack.   

That’s hardly the case today. The privately held company is recognized among the leaders in the growing field of portable sports video cameras, and has sold hundreds of thousands of units (specifics numbers are proprietary, Barros noted). Last November, Contour (then called VHolder), secured $5 million in financing from Montlake Capital and Black Oak Capital Partners.  

The Contour HD camera — the basic camera — weighs less than 5 ounces, basically the size of a cell phone and twice as thick  The camera uses twin lasers to keep the lens in constant focus, and has a large on-off switch covering most of the camera’s top surface so you can switch it on and off while wearing gloves. 

I took the Contour HD camera for a bike ride, shot it in full HD (1920x1080 at 30fps) and viewed the result on a 60-inch HDTV screen. The video was great, the photography: not so much. I strapped the camera around my head; the resulting video showed every head bobble and twitch. Attached to something more stable and less vulnerable to movement will give you better pictures. Here’s a sample (talk about real life!).


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