Strip away the tracts of FarmVille land, the politics of tagging and untagging photos, and even the near-vestigial "poke," and you have Facebook at its core: this is what has become, for hundreds of millions of people around the world, the next generation of the phone book.
So it's understandable that even in the age of the text message, telephony would become a part of Facebook at one point or another. Except you won't find it on Facebook.com. Instead, the social-networking site is baked right into the latest version of VoIP service Skype, which was released for Windows this week (Mac users are currently left hanging): Using Facebook's API, Skype users can pull in their Facebook contact lists to more easily call and text their friends, update their statuses, and access an unusually extensive amount of Facebook information like their friends' activity feeds.
With Google building up Google Voice, and Apple introducing FaceTime video chat for the iPhone 4 this year, video-enabled calling is no longer the stuff of 1960s sci-fi visions of the year 2000. Facebook would understandably want to be in on this, particularly since Google's chat and VoIP products may very well end up becoming a key part of the shadowy social-networking plans that it's cobbling together.
True, Facebook has operated an instant-messaging service, Facebook Chat, for over two years now, but hasn't upgraded the product much since then aside from minor tweaks to let third-party clients plug into it. Facebook Chat is about as basic as they get. Peer-to-peer video calls, not to mention the distribution of phone numbers, is a very different cup of tea. It's an extremely technology-intensive process, and Facebook is likely happy to not have to build it in-house. The presence of a non-Google, non-Apple partner--especially one that's freshly on its own as an independent company--is a splendid opportunity for it.
Skype needed this, too. As a communication tool, it's earned many an accolade, but it's missing that social kick. If you're looking for a real-life friend on Skype, searching in the directory brings up an amorphous directory of names and user handles, often difficult to sift through and manage. Random messages from unknown users are common. In essence, Skype is a social technology without the advantage of what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg so famously calls "the social graph"--a foundation of real-world connections that can make a service like Skype significantly more relevant to the average user.
The catch is that Facebook launched another "deep" partnership this week, a social search integration deal with Bing. Despite the fact that Microsoft (unlike Skype) actually has a financial stake in Facebook, Zuckerberg was quick to make it clear that there was no exclusivity involved on Facebook's part. "We're trying to build a platform, so fundamentally, this is not about working with a single company," he said at the time. "Over the long term, we would love to work with everyone." So analysis of a single deal may not be the tea leaves of Facebook's future.
Still, given the frequent chilliness between Google and Facebook over social networking in general, and occasional vibes of hostility between Apple and Facebook--look at the talk of "onerous terms" for Facebook's hypothetical presence on Apple's Ping service. Skype may indeed be the perfect partner here. It's not like Facebook was going to sync up with ChatRoulette, after all.