Video calling and FaceTime - Terrible name, Brilliant pitch - but a way forward?

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Video calling on mobiles has been a reality in most of the world for five years now - and it's been a disaster in terms of take-up rate. Yet Apple comes on the scene with their new FaceTime - video calling - 'feature' and seems to have nailed it in terms of making people want it. Read on for my thoughts on what has the rest of the world been doing wrong and for the use case that Apple has, quite correctly, identified and exploited.

Watching Steve Jobs' keynotes are always fascinating - Apple truly are good at taking technology from others and making it work better for the average man. In this case taking the core idea from the video calling that Nokia phones have featured for the last five years and finding a way of implementing and presenting it that seems compelling.

Consider the concept in the wider mobile world for a moment. I've only made one video call - ever. And that was a test call to Rafe. Video calling sounds like a great idea, until you realise that there are some significant disadvantages:

  1. networks have charged video calls at a premium - it's far cheaper to make a standard voice call and not have to worry about the other points on this list
  2. video calls have typically had poor frame rate and resolution, due to network bandwidth limitations - the user experience is terrible
  3. if signal strength is less than ideal then a video call won't work that well anyway
  4. the recipient of the call will usually not want to be seen - because they're not dressed/made up/where you expect them to be (and a hundred other reasons)

In short, generalised video calling is just a very bad idea and, quite rightly, it hasn't taken off.

However, in the wider computer world, video calling has taken off, within a certain use case. Every week, my parents call up from the other side of the country and we video chat on Skype for an hour or so, all for free. Members of my family can come and go on camera and their other grandchildren can come and go at their end. For each of us, it's a literal window in the other's lives and is almost as good as being there in person.

Note that this use case avoids all the bullet points above. The call is over Wi-Fi/broadband, so there are far fewer congestion issues; videos can be at full VGA (or better) resolution, so there's a good camera experience and you can see people properly; and, most importantly, the people concerned want to engage in a video call, because they're as excited at seeing you and your family and you are about seeing their's.

So, in five years, this is about the only personal use case for video calls of any kind that has taken off - and you'll see the same pattern all across the world - grandparents watching grandchildren, dads Skype-calling from hotel rooms while travelling, to say goodnight to their kids, and so on. For these cases, video calling goes from a no-hope technology to being a killer application.

And this is what Apple, rather astutely, have recognised. Their (stupidly-named) FaceTime system is designed to work over Wi-Fi only and at full-screen resolution on the iPhone - or at least from iPhone to iPhone. In the keynote, the demo videos were mainly family members enjoying being able to connect with each other in the same scenario that I just depicted.

What we need now is for video-call software on other platforms (e.g. Fring on Symbian, shown below) to make use of the 'open standards' that FaceTime is built-on, to open up all smartphones for Wi-Fi, full-screen video chatting, whether the calling family or recipient family member has an iPhone, a Nokia, an HTC device, a Mac desktop, a PC, etc.

All over Wi-Fi (or broadband) - no mobile network needed, no restrictions apply, and so forth.

Fring video calls - here iPhone to Nokia N97

The networks had their chance, over and over again, to make video calling work - and they blew it. Spearheaded (arguably) by Apple, video calling (for all of us) is now officially an area in which the mobile network operators are completely and utterly redundant - and it's largely their own fault.

Steve Litchfield, AAS, 13 June 2010