Just days after Google launched its Google+ social project, Facebook may be about to rain on its parade.
Insiders say that an event scheduled for tomorrow - for which CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised 'something awesome' - will see the launch of a new in-browser Facebook video chat service, delivered through a deal with Skype. And the fact that the invitations to the event feature a small chat icon and the silhouette of a person certainly give this theory credence.
A report from TechCrunch suggests that the product will include a desktop component, and that the feature would involve very deep integration between the Skype and Facebook products.
And it would parallel the Hangout feature in Google+, currently in an invitation-only beta. This offers two capabilities seen as bigimprovements over Facebook: Circles, which is a much less unwieldy way of arranging friends into different groups - and the Hangouts group video chat feature.
It's notoriously difficult to get a social network going from scratch, and these two features have been seen as key to Google's chances. Direct competition on the video chat front from Facebook, with its massive installed base, could, to say the least, be a bit of a blow.
One difference between the two offerings, though, might be the incusion of group video chat; Google+ allows up to ten users at a time. While Skype does currently offer the same ability, it's currently only available through the Skype Premium subscription ervice, which costs around £15 for three months in the UK. This might need to change for Facebook video chat to take off.
The loss of subscription fees, though, could be a price worth paying for Skype, which currently has around 170 million users, but will no doubt gain many more once Facebook's three quarters of a billion or so have a simpler way to use the service.
So will Facebook be able to see off Google+? Probably, says Forrester analyst Nate Elliott. "Google hasn't exactly lit the social world on fire in the past: Google Buzz was largely ignored, Google Wave was largely ridiculed, and even Orkut may be starting to lose its famous lead in Brazil," he points out.
Facebook and Google have been talking about a deal for a year. Last October, Skype 5.0 was released, offering voice calling between Facebook friends, but no video chat feature.
A Facebook/Skype deal would bring Facebook closer to Microsoft, which announced two months ago that it was acquiring Skype for $8.5 billion, in the company's largest acquisition yet. Microsoft's already partnered with Facebook on search integration and other services since investing in the company four years ago.