Have you noticed? Facebook, the world’s favorite social networking tool, has been jockeying for position lately. So have Skype and Twitter. These giants lost their lead after an unprecedented run-up from newcomer Tango, a new free mobile-to-mobile video calling service. Hours after launching on September 30, Tango became the #1 free social networking app—knocking off Twitter, Skype and Facebook in the App Store—in nine countries including the United States, Hong Kong, France, Taiwan, Spain and South Korea. And, just yesterday, Tango announced its 1 millionth download from the App Store and Android Marketplace. (At the moment, it’s slipped to the #2 spot, after Facebook.)
Without any cheerleading by Apple or any existing brand awareness or installed user base to speak of, Tango’s explosive rise is a feat of virality that every app developer dreams of. “It’s unheard of,” says Patrick Mork of GetJar, the world’s largest independent app store. Clearly, there is pent-up demand for free, two-way video calls that work reliably across platforms (Android and iOS) over 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi. Yahoo is moving in fast, too, with its newest version of Yahoo Messenger, announced Monday, which does video chats on iOs devices over 3G and Wi-Fi and allows users to place video calls to and from desktops: it’s already #4 in the App Store’s “Top Free” social networking category, just behind Tango (#2) and Skype (#3).
With Tango, besides being able to talk for free (via a data connection) and see friends in real-time on both Android handsets and iPhones, there’s ease of use. One-click functionality for audio and video. Plus, you can make Tango video calls with anyone in your address book that has downloaded the app. Invite friends with an email or text. A really cool feature is the option to switch between audio and video during mid-call, so you’re not compelled to show your mug the entire conversation. And callers can do live-streaming and sharing of what they’re seeing.
Compared to previous attempts to popularize mobile-to-mobile video calling (think Fring and Qik), Tango is the most hassle-free and most ubiquitous experience yet. As with Apple’s FaceTime, there is no registration, log-in, or fussy set-up. Just your name and phone number. “Our goal is to remove the technical part of the equation,” says Eric Setton, Tango’s CTO and cofounder, “so users can focus on the conversation.”
Video calling on Yahoo Messenger requires pre-registration and only works on iPhones not Android devices, and is limited to premium users in “select” countries internationally. FaceTime only works on the iPhone 4 and new iPod Touches. Tango, meanwhile, works globally with iPhones (3GS or above) or Android phones (HTC EVO, Hero, Desire, Droid Incredible, Nexus One; Samsung’s Galaxy S; Motorola’s Droid and Backflip, and more). And there is talk of Tango moving to screens of any size and getting on every smartphone platform including Nokia, Windows, and Blackberry.
Sixty percent of Tango’s traffic is coming from 125 countries outside the United States, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company reports. Some early users of the free peer-to-peer video streaming service, which has six patents pending, have groused some about sluggish setups, low audio on calls, and how the video isn’t as pristine as FaceTime. The 23-person startup says it’s working fast to address its “growing pains” and has added more server capacity, which should help smooth out scaling troubles.
Apparently, it’s working.
While Facebook has recovered its forerunner status, keep an eye on Tango: it remains a top five social app in 26 countries including the United States, France, Hong Kong, Spain, Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, Greece, Italy, Egypt and Luxembourg. In the Android Marketplace, Tango isn’t breaking out as fast, but it’s still a top 10 communications app. Albeit a dark horse, Tango’s manic rise indicates consumers aren’t waiting for FaceTime, or any other free, high quality mobile video/voice solution, to arrive or go cross-platform over networks besides Wi-Fi. Sure, the social rankings are bound to keep shifting over time. But who knows? Maybe Tango will cut in on Skype’s rumored deal to provide voice chat to Facebook’s 500 million users? Now that would be something for a startup just days old.