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Facebook's Messenger adds video chat

The world's largest social network goes toe-to-toe with Apple's FaceTime and Microsoft's Skype.

Facebook is steadily expanding Messenger's capabilities. James Martin/CNET

Video chat has become a great way for people to communicate with friends and family, especially across international borders. Facebook now wants a piece of that action.

Facebook users can soon use the social network's Messenger app to talk face-to-face over Wi-Fi or cellular networks, simply by tapping on a video camera icon at the top. The service will work between Apple devices and those powered by Google's Android software.

Facebook thinks its Messenger video chat has an edge over competitors -- including FaceTime from Apple, Hangouts from Google and Skype from Microsoft -- because it lets users spontaneously switch from texting to video.

facebook-messenger-video.png
Facebook

"Everything starts from texting," said Stan Chudnovsky, head of product for Facebook's messaging efforts.

Facebook wants to become more than a site where people share their vacation pictures or the latest cat video. One way it plans to do that is with text messaging, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has invested considerable resources. Last year, Facebook spent more than $19 billion to buy WhatsApp, a separate messaging app that has become popular in part because it helped people subvert expensive text-messaging costs on cellular phones. The service now has more than 800 million active users around the world.

Facebook has also been beefing up its Messenger app to make it the go-to service for every and all kinds of communication -- from dialing calls and sending money between friends to customer support.

Messenger has accumulated a growing set of tools to stave off competitive from a growing list of competitors, particularly the ephemeral chat service Snapchat. Last month, Facebook offered new features such as the ability for people to send videos, photos and other items from other apps to friends using Messenger. It also offered users the ability to communicate with businesses, such as to ask a question about an order or to purchase a new item.

Facebook claims the new video chat delivers the best audio and video, across different types of Internet connections and data networks.

"We want to make sure someone on a high-end iPhone here can make a call to someone with an Android in India," Chudnovsky said.

Last week, the company said that 10 percent of all audio chats on the Internet happened in Messenger. That feature was released two years ago. Video, Facebook said, was one of the top things users having been asking for since then.