Facebook’s Main Man on Skype, Seattle’s Philip Su, on Making Video Calls Magical

In the six months or so he spent building Skype video chat into Facebook, Philip Su had a particular person in mind: your mom. Well, not just her—when you’ve got a user base 750 million strong, there’s a big contingent of folks who aren’t early adopters or tech geeks. And even though video calling has been around for several years, lots of people probably haven’t used it yet.

The big hurdle? Setup and installation—for every download, new username, term of service, and on and on, you lose handfuls of mainstream users. And that puts a real crimp on those made-for-TV marketing moments where a grandparent coos over the newest member of the brood from thousands of miles away.

“Like my parents, right? I bought them a little laptop, and it has a little webcam. And I bought this two years ago. And they didn’t even know the thing had a webcam—it was just like a little black thing on the top,” Su says. “But [now] you video call them, and they’re like, ‘Oh this is magical! I can’t believe it! This is so cool!'”

Of course, there’s plenty of work behind all that magical stuff. I stopped by the Facebook offices in Seattle recently to talk with Su about the Skype project, which was announced earlier this month at a big press event down at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, CA.

The debut of video calling was the biggest public showcase yet for Facebook Seattle, the collection of roughly 40 engineers who represent the social networking behemoth’s only significant engineering office outside of Silicon Valley. The flat-topped Su represented the Northwesterners at the Skype project unveiling in Palo Alto, wearing the Seattle office’s distinctive Space Needle-logo T-shirt (which got some love of its own in the tech press).

Facebook-Skype video calling still isn’t live for everyone in the Facebook universe. Like most things in the social network, it’s being rolled out in stages, and Su continues to quarterback the process. He was the only full-time Facebook engineer on the project, although some others chipped in with part-time help.

As GigaOm’s Ryan Kim detailed in this piece, the big problems for Skype were paring down its service to work inside a Web browser, making sure the back-end connections with Facebook were smooth, and getting ready to handle a flood of traffic—Skype CEO Tony Bates said the Facebook deal is tied directly to Skype’s goal of getting to a billion users.

On the Facebook side, Su says, the huge user base meant working through a rat’s nest of different configuration scenarios and making sure the video calls stayed “magical,” stable, secure and easy to use.

“For instance: users running Windows XP SP3, with user access control on, that are non-admins—what happens in their case, when they install in a home where a husband and wife share a machine, but have two different logins? And both are logged in at that point—what happens? Maybe the wife is an admin and the husband is not, so who was running the executable file when they launched? These sorts of things get really complicated,” Su says.

One new development that’s not helping maintain the magic is Mac’s new OSX Lion operating system update, which has ditched the Java integration that made installation in previous versions so seamless on Macs. That’s a big headache, obviously, since Su worked so much on making the setup and install process quick and easy. Losing Java means users will have to do some extra steps, and Facebook is still figuring out how to get that done.

“We are very likely going to go with either a native implementation on the installer, which is unfortunately not as integrated and smooth, but is made necessary by Lion. Or something like the app store—some other way to get the software down that is standard for the user,” Su says. “The decision’s not been made on that.”

When he announced video calling with Skype, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized the fact that pairing with an external partner for such a big feature is precisely how Facebook wants to expand its offerings. Linking up with other companies that have specific expertise in things like video calling frees up Facebook to continue building and maintaining its platform. It’s certainly a savings in manpower—I’m guessing Su wouldn’t have been basically alone on the project if Facebook had built its own video calling service.

Su says Skype was the choice for two big reasons: reach and quality. Skype already is working with tons of users, an average of 145 million per month as of the fourth quarter in 2010. And Facebook was impressed by Skype’s video and audio quality, which was critical especially if you’re going to have to trim the thing down and lose some quality to work inside Facebook.

As for future uses, Su wouldn’t give details on any particular next step, but did say the “obvious” things like mobile and group video calling were on the horizon. It’s all part of a big-picture strategy for Facebook to make communication between users swift and seamless across a bunch of different types of communication—imagine connecting with a friend and having your message routed through text or video or voice to any device the person’s on at the time, in a fun and fast way.

“If you’re carrying your phone with you right now, as you are, with your laptop, as you are, and someone sends you a chat message–and you might even be on Facebook.com right now—what is the right set of things we should connect with you on? And how do we know that’s the right set?” Su asked, pointing to my array of devices on the conference-room table. “I think that may not be immediately obvious to people, but is a thing that, when we do solve that correctly, will feel magical to users.”

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