Well, here’s a surprise: Facebook video chat now works in Ubuntu and other Linux distributions out of the box, no plugin or extra download required.
The change, which appears to have come into effect in the past few weeks, sees the social network’s on-site video calling feature switch to a web-based technology that “just works” for users.
Skype-based video calling was introduced to Facebook back in 2011 but required users to install a web-browser plugin to use it. That plugin, based on the archaic NPAPI architecture, was only available for Windows and Mac OS. Linux (and Chromebook) users were left in the shade.
All past tense now, of course.
Facebook Video Chat Now ‘Just Works’…
As of writing there has been no formal or official announcement by Facebook on the change. That said, most of Facebook’s Help Center articles have been updated to reference it, with most date-stamped as ‘3 weeks ago’.
Those help pages have swapped plugin download how-to’s and “not available for Linux” blurbs for a concise, if brief, rundown of how the “new Facebook video calling experience” (emphasis mine) works:
“Video calling lets you make calls right from Facebook without downloading any additional programs or plugins, and works with Google Chrome, Firefox and Opera. All you need to do is click [on the video icon] in the upper-right corner of a conversation to start a video call.”
Fantastic news for Facebook fans, right?
…But We Don’t Know How It Works
Annoyingly for geeks like us the social networking giant is yet to mention the nitty gritty about how the new web-based ‘Facebook Video Calling’ feature works.
It is clearly based on a standard web technology as it will work out-of-the-box on an Ubuntu Live CD. That suggests it’s using the ‘Web Real-Time Communication’ (WebRTC) protocol that enables browser-to-browser applications like voice chat (and others, like instant messaging, file sending, etc.).
Adding weight to this is the list of ‘supported browsers’ in the updated help articles on Facebook. These three, Chrome, Firefox and Opera, all support WebRTC natively. Safari and Internet Explorer are not listed.
What about Skype?
Where does that leave Skype, the VoIP giant that has ‘powered’ Facebook’s voice and video chat until now? That’s unclear. Use of WebRTC doesn’t rule out Skype’s involvement, though. Microsoft aims to bring its VoIP service to the browser natively using the same web standard, and launched ‘Skype for Web’ in private beta late last year.
There’s also the question how/if WhatsApp, which was purchased by Facebook last year, plays into this. Zuckerberg’s billion dollar purchase is widely expected to introduce ‘voice calls’ in the near future. Might it use similar underlying technologies?
Whatever the backend the feature works well enough for everyday use. It won’t replace Skype, and Google Hangouts — which went plugin-free last year — remains unrivalled for group chats and overall functionality.
But for brief chats with those not integrated into your life outside of Facebook it should prove useful to have so readily at hand.
Here’s How to Use Facebook Video Calling in Ubuntu
To use Facebook video calling in Ubuntu you need a supported browser: Google Chrome, Opera or Firefox.
Head to the Facebook website, log in with your regular credentials and select a friend from your Chat List who is both available to chat and on a device that can accept video calls.
Click the camera icon at the top of the chat window:
The video call session will open in a separate window. You can move and resize this window like any other.
The first time you try to make a video you will be asked to allow Facebook access to your webcam and microphone. Since your call can’t take place until you do so, click the ‘Allow’ button or prompt that appears to continue.
Hover over the window to reveal a small set of button. These allow you to (in order) turn off your webcam, mute your microphone, end the call or take the entire chat full-screen.
As Facebook rings out the person you’re trying to contact they’ll see a call alert:
As soon as the call is answered (and assuming neither party has muted their mic or webcam prior to connection taking place) you’ll be able to see and hear each other right away:
To end a call click the red ‘Phone’ icon in the toolbar overlay (or close the window).
And that’s literally all there is to it.
How well does it work?
For me the feature didn’t work fantastically. It connects quickly (almost seamlessly) but the call quality was crackly and the video lagged a good number of frames behind the sound. How much of that was based on network traffic I can’t tell, but I did hop onto Skype afterwards to compare and it was a world of difference.
If you take Facebook video chat for a spin in your distribution of choice do leave a comment on how you find the quality.