Facebook pushes free voice calls

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about Facebook Graph Search at a Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Jan. 15, 2013. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

(MoneyWatch) Although Facebook's (FB) new "graph search" is attracting considerable attention, the company announced another splashy upgrade this week: free voice calling.

Facebook has changed its Messenger for iPhone app to allow users to make free voice calls to their online friends. All it takes is clicking a new "free call" button to get connected over a WiFi connection. But will this be expensive for Facebook? Not at all.

Some see the move as a gambit to attract teenagers. There have been indications that younger users have begun to turn away from Facebook, spending less time on it and gravitating toward other social networks, such as Foursquare and Twitter.

Although free voice calling might seem to be an expensive way to keep teens tethered, it isn't for several reasons:

  • Calls don't cost that much. There is a reason that Skype, now owned by Microsoft (MSFT), and other companies providing online phone services were able to offer small flat rates for domestic calling. The expense to carry those calls is actually tiny.
  • The number of calls will be low among teenagers. People who are older likely already have telephone plans that let them make the calls they want without overly worrying about how much a single call costs. And teenagers may not put that much demand on the system. Any parent of teenagers can attest to how often they text rather than talk. There is also data showing the high preference for texting among those under 18.
  • There are already alternatives. Other services, including Skype and Gmail chat, have been available on mobile phones for years and don't seem to have driven the providers into penury. Facebook is unlikely to suddenly attract a surge of people desperate to make a free phone call on an expensive iPhone.
  • But if free phone calls are unlikely to be a big draw among teenagers, why would Facebook bother? For the data. Enabling a phone call will allow the company to capture all sorts of useful information, such as mobile numbers, length of calls and even negative information like which Facebook users never talk on the phone.

    All that data enters the giant bucket that Facebook has been collecting, which will also eventually contain information from the graph searches that people do, indicating their ongoing interests. That could be a lot of something for nothing.

    Image courtesy of Flickr user Roebot

    • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

      Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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