Facebook is venturing into the world of online gambling with the launch of its first application where punters can stake real money.
Starting on Tuesday, Facebook will offer users in the U.K. aged 18 and over the opportunity to play online bingo for cash prizes. Slot machine games will be added in the coming weeks.
"Gambling is very popular and well regulated in the U.K. … for millions of bingo users it's already a social experience [so] it makes sense [for us] to offer that as well," said Julien Codorniou, Facebook's head of gaming for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
There has long been speculation among investors as to whether Facebook and other social networking sites would introduce gambling products to boost revenues. Zynga, Facebook's largest gaming partner, is hoping to introduce real-money gambling versions of its poker, bingo and slot machine games in 2013.
However many markets outside the U.K. can pose considerable legal risks, as regulations vary considerably from country to country. In the U.S., where the majority of Facebook revenues are generated, the market for real-money social gaming is effectively closed. Regulators only recently began opening the door to certain kinds of online gambling, and only within states, presenting significant technical challenges for keeping operations within the law.
Facebook's move in the U.K. is a significant development, according to Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, a London-based online gambling association.
"Bingo is at the softer end of the gambling spectrum and online bingo often has chat forums alongside so it's an obvious match for Facebook," he said. "A lot of people have said why haven't they done it before because there's a difficulty in monetizing what they have – this is one way of bringing in revenues."
Facebook will launch the Bingo Friendzy app in a joint venture with Gamesys, one of the U.K.'s largest online gambling operators, to target the social network's large online audience.
"We are a distribution platform for Gamesys – they have the games and we bring the audience," said Mr Codorniou.
He said Facebook was in discussions with other gambling companies about expanding its offerings which could include casino games such as blackjack and roulette, but he said "nothing concrete" had been agreed.