Video chat is the big thing again, at least according to Facebook, which let loose a new video chat service yesterday. Powered by Skype, the new feature lets Facebook users start video calls with one another while continuing to use the site.
While other video chat tools may have been built on top of Facebook's application platform, this now comes out of the box for Facebook users, old and new. The result is that Facebook's added yet another way for its 750 million users to communicate with one another.
But moving beyond the hype, the big thing you're probably wondering is how this new service stacks up to the groovy video chat tools found in Google+, the social network Google recently launched as a "field trial" (see CNET's hands-on). One of its crowning features, besides providing an alternative to Facebook, is that you can video chat with your friends in multiple ways. How do the two compare? The short of it is that Facebook is simpler to use. The longer answer is that you might be happier with Google in day-to-day use.
To help illustrate that, I've delved into some things you might want to do with these services to see how they really compare. The best way to do that is with common scenarios you'd run into when wanting to video chat with someone else. Below are five I ran into when putting both services through their paces (Google+ over the past week, and Facebook's all of today).
Scenario: You want to video chat with a technologically impaired friend/family member
How it plays out on Facebook: Facebook's added a video call item to every user profile to let you (or them) start a chat from that page. If they've never used the feature before, Facebook has them download a tiny plug-in file to run, which installs without requiring a browser restart. They then click on a button that confirms they want to chat, and the video starts up.
Arguably the most difficult part in all this is getting someone to download that plug-in and install it. Facebook says it only takes about 10 to 20 seconds, but you're going to want to make sure your friend or family member can actually find the plug-in installer file in the first place. Luckily, modern Web browsers do a pretty good job nowadays with helping you locate what you just downloaded. Facebook also does a bit of hand-holding here, telling you what to do to first get going.
How it plays out on Google+: Pretty much the same deal as on Facebook with regards to the plug-in aspect. The big difference is in where Google surfaces the video chat option.
There are two points of entry to get a video chat going: the chat list on the left hand side and the hangouts feature. These are entirely different chat experiences, with the chat being a one-to-one experience, and the hangouts being a place where you can chat with one or more users at the same time. Between the two options, it's easier to search for, and find someone to talk with from Google+'s home page using the chat tool. Facebook arguably has the edge here in keeping its buddy list equivalent on the same part of your screen at all times--something that's useful for folks who get lost easily.
Scenario: The conversation gets awkward/boring
You suddenly don't want to talk to this person, or the conversation has stalled. Most people would call an end to it but you don't want to. How do you fill in the time?
How it plays out on Facebook: You're left to your own devices. For better or for worse, the video chat is just that and nothing more. You can't share anything with the other person than your words and whatever's coming from the Web cam.
How it plays out on Google+: It's the same situation in Google+'s standard video chat. But with "hangouts" there are a number of social options to spice things up. You can start watching YouTube videos either by yourself, or have others watch with you. If what Google's done with turning links into content in Google Chat is any indication, more features like this should be on the way.
Scenario: You get a phone call and need to duck out for a minute
How it plays out on Facebook: This is one of those areas where comparisons need to be drawn back to the product Facebook's video chat is derived from, which is Skype itself. In Skype you get a bevvy of options, though notably ones to mute the line and pause the video. Here you're just forced to go to another room, or end the video call. Simply minimizing the chat window will keep the video rolling in the background.
What did we end up doing? We canceled out that Facebook video chat session, then resumed it when the call was done. That's a minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience nonetheless.
How it plays out on Google+: Here again we have to break it out as the Google Chat video experience, and the hangouts experience.
• With the Google Chat video chat, you get quick mute button for the audio, which you can toggle on and off. You're the only one who sees and control this option.
• With Google+'s hangouts you get a microphone and video mute for yourself, as well as the option to mute the audio of others. This means you don't have to fumble for your computer's system volume knob to tell the other person to be quiet for a minute. Hangouts also makes it more transparent about what the other users are doing, whether it's muting their microphones, or hopping onto watch a YouTube video. This means you can keep tabs on what's going on when you get back from your phone call and are wondering what the other person is doing.
Scenario: The other person doesn't want to video chat
How it plays out on Facebook: First of all, if a person's not online, you can't begin a video chat with them; the video option is not present on an offline user's profile page. But if they are, and are just away from their computer (or intentionally ignoring you), your request will eventually time out.
Here's what's neat about Facebook's approach: the company is taking advantage of its video message service to let you record and leave a video message. These show up in your inbox like any other message, as well as in the chat dialogue on the bottom of the screen. Sure this is just an existing feature that's been re-bundled into something else, but it's smart.
How it plays out on Google+: If someone's offline, you're simply out of luck. Like Facebook, there's not an option to begin a video chat with them. And there's not an option to send them a video message that they can see after the fact.
With Google's YouTube Webcam recording feature you could theoretically work around this by recording a video there first, then sharing it privately through Google+, but let's face it, that's an enormous amount of work. Will Google likely add a video message recording feature to the sharing options of Google+? Maybe.
Scenario: You want to video chat with two people at once
How it plays out on Facebook: So far this is a no-go. During yesterday's press conference, Mark Zuckerberg noted that this could change farther on down the line with multi-person video chat. But for now if you want to talk to two people on video, it's going to be a one at a time affair.
How it plays out on Google+: Same deal with Google+'s Chat component. The difference is with the hangouts feature, where up to 10 people can be together. The obvious thing to point out here is that they'll all be talking with each other since this is a shared chat.
For all around ease of use, Facebook gets a definite edge when it comes to simplicity and ubiquity. It's obvious where to access the feature from user chats and user profiles alike, and you can get a video chat up and running with someone else in less than a minute.
If you want more bells and whistles, then Google's video chat efforts in Google+ beat Facebook's handily. Google's offering users a system that is completely familiar if you're used other Google products like Gmail and iGoogle, and a much more advanced group chat option with the hangouts feature.
So to answer the original question of which one to use, the answer depends on who you want to talk to. Ultimately video chatting is all about getting in touch with someone else in a way that's technologically convenient for both of you. Right now the simple truth is that Facebook's made that easier. It has more than 750 million users, any of whom with a Web cam can now talk to one another across the digital divide.
The huge--and I do mean huge--caveat here is that these two services are by no means sitting still. Google+ is still on its way to being a publicly available product (assuming it makes it there), and Facebook is on a constant march to add and change features. Knowing what Skype, which powers Facebook's video chat feature, is already capable of in software form gives us some road map of where it could be headed within Facebook's confines.