Bobsled Goes Off The Tracks: T-Mobile Suspends Its Facebook Voice Service

Looks like Bobsled, T-Mobile’s new voice service on the Facebook platform, has hit a hitch, only one week into its life: according to Bobsled, the service has been temporarily suspended over “design questions” from Facebook.

Bobsled posted a status message on its Facebook page yesterday alerting users to the suspension of service (and that status update was picked up by the T-Mobile blog Tmo News earlier today):

“We are voluntarily and temporarily suspending the Bobsled service as we work with our partners at Facebook to address their design questions, including working to ensure that the Bobsled experience is clearly differentiated and is not mistaken for a Facebook created property. We apologize to our customers for this temporary disruption in service.”

Bobsled, which is offered as a Facebook app, allows users to make voice calls to other Facebook users through Facebook’s chat window. They can also post voice messages on their walls or via private message. It works regardless of whether or not the users were T-Mobile customers. The longer-term goal for T-Mobile was to extend the service, developed with the VoIP company Vivox, as an app to smartphones and tablets (again irrespective of the carrier), as well as add video chat, and calls to mobile and landline numbers.

The service was a bold move from T-Mobile to try to extend its brand beyond that of mobile operator to multi-platform voice service provider. At the same time, Bobsled could potentially fill something of a gap: although Facebook has become a huge force in communications, particularly in mobile, it has been almost completely quiet where voice services are concerned.

It appears from Bobsled’s statement that the crux of the problem is that the service looked like something created by Facebook itself, when in fact it was built in the same way that other Facebook apps (such as games) have been built: through the use of Facebook’s APIs. A message at the bottom of Bobsled’s own site reads “The Bobsled for Facebook application is not developed or endorsed by Facebook.” But on its Facebook page, that distinction is not made at the moment.

That could have posed a problem beyond simple branding issues: according to a March report from BusinessWeek, Facebook and Skype are in advanced discussions to launch a video calling service on the site.

Facebook and Skype announced a cooperative agreement last year that lets Skype users call their Facebook friends from within Skype’s phone client, and also get their Facebook news feeds streamed into their Skype news feeds — but so far that has not extended into the golden, 500-million user opportunity of offering Skype voice and video calls from within Facebook.

If Facebook did enter into such a deal, having another voice (and potentially video) service available on Facebook, like Bobsled, could confuse people — and moreover drive users to the competing service instead of the one that Facebook itself was actually promoting.

It’s not clear how many users Bobsled has picked up in its one week of operations, or when we can expect it to come online again. We have contacted T-Mobile for more details and will update this post as we learn more.