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Summary:

In Apple’s press release for the iMac G5, Steve Jobs was quoted, “Plus, the built-in iSight video camera delivers out-of-the-box video conferencing with friends and family, as well as hours of fun with our new Photo Booth application.” So, what happened to the iSight?

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In June 2003 at WWDC, Apple released the FireWire iSight webcam. Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller took the stage to show off the new iSight which everyone applauded and subsequently purchased. The $129 webcam allowed you to broadcast video to friends via iChat AV (in beta at the time) at 640×480 resolution. iChat AV received full 1.0 status that year with the release of Mac OS X Panther.

Soon, the iSight made its way into Apple’s entire line-up of notebooks and iMacs; even the 24” LED display Apple sells has a built-in webcam. Now, the only Apple computers that don’t have an iSight are the Mac Pro and Mac mini, for obvious reasons.

In Apple’s press release for the iMac G5, which was the first machine to have an iSight built-in, Steve Jobs was quoted, “Plus, the built-in iSight video camera delivers out-of-the-box video conferencing with friends and family, as well as hours of fun with our new Photo Booth application.”

So, what happened to the iSight? It certainly wasn’t Apple’s fault that iSight didn’t get the adoption that it needed. These days, iSight has gone the way of MySpace-using teens that upload Photo Booth snaps while at the Apple Store and Skype conversations between grandparents. iSight is accessible via Apple’s Development APIs so developing for it is a cinch. There may be hope for iSight and the long-forgotten “AV” features of iChat. With the rumors of a forward facing camera in Apple’s next generation iPhone, we may see Apple’s seven-year investment into tiny cameras and easy to use chat software make its way to those away from their desk, without ever having to open a notebook and find a Wi-Fi network. But first, let’s discuss my thoughts behind where iSight has failed so far.

Where iSight Has Failed

I think it’s a philosophical reason that the iSight use never picked up, and maybe Apple will prove us wrong by making video conversations as easy as grabbing our cell phone. Technically, Apple was able to fit a video camera into the ultra-thin MacBook Air but I think Apple knew that video conversations on the go just wasn’t going to be used by consumers if it wasn’t easy.

I’d argue that Apple did it best. Sure, this is an Apple-centric blog but after years of working in IT, I’ve used video solutions from Microsoft, Logitech and Cisco and each of these had their own quirks, device compatibility and performance issues. Any Mac sold has iChat AV built-in along with its camera. The video icon appears if someone has the same functionality, click and you see them within seconds. The problem is that it doesn’t travel. Apple’s notebooks don’t have built-in 3G and Wi-Fi isn’t always available. The iPad was my bet for truly making video conferencing mobile but that didn’t happen, at least in the first generation device. The holy grail for bringing video chat to everyone is to make it fit in your pocket, with the basic requirement being a data connection.

How it Could Work

Didn’t other handsets have video chatting software built-in? Sure. Nokia included these front facing cameras in many of its smartphones. The issue was compatibility where two handsets have the video camera and software and they frequently had to be on the same carrier, plus this was only being used in Europe and Asia. Yes, those are huge markets but it wasn’t “universal” across devices and carriers. From what I hear, the connections were too slow and the software too buggy to take over voice or texting as a preferred method of communicating with peers on the go. If the next iPhone gets this functionality, there are huge advantages that Apple has.

  • iPhones are available globally
  • Data speeds to mobile phones is much faster in 2010 compared to 2006
  • iChat on Mac OS X

I could sit at home and video chat with someone on the go in Chicago, London or Tokyo. This is what it will take for video conferencing to truly take off and receive mass adoption.

Then Again…

Then again, there are cultural and behavioral observations that show video as a direct communications tool just doesn’t sync up with how we engage these days. In theory, video seems like a great way to go. Instead of a long email that takes 15 minutes to type, we’d rather phone a friend or video chat with them, but it just doesn’t happen. The video chat isn’t distributable to the team. The video chat can’t be searched or indexed and storage is still pricey if you’re doing a lot of video conversations. Not to mention, multitasking goes out the window; instead of plowing through 25 emails, I’m getting 25 iChat or Skype video calls every 10 minutes. It’s just not going to scale very well.

So what does the future hold for iSight? That’s a tough one. The video camera is cheap for Apple to include, but is it useful to use R&D resources to include iSight in future devices? Will iSight appear in more consumer Apple devices? Will Apple take more risks by pushing this on us only to realize that we still won’t video chat despite having instant access to the service on our iPhones, laptops and desktops? If the new iPhone does get iChat AV w/ a forward-facing camera, we’ll see if the population uses it as much as we would hope…or maybe video conferencing goes the way of ExpressCard slots on Apple notebooks only used by a small percentage of the user base. Would you use iChat more if your iPhone or iPod touch had it built-in?

  1. I’d like to think I’d use it, but in reality I think I’d just be weirded out. If I’m with someone I’ll give them my full attention, but when I’m on the phone I’m often doing something else. Plus if you’re out and about and you’re making a video call I’d’ve thought it’s going to be slightly more antisocial than a normal call would be.

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  2. I use video calls every day with my MacBook Pro and my office iMac. Video calls via Skype are the most common thing in my eviroment. Everybody I know who has a computer is using Skype.

    I’m using it for work but also with my parents or some time ago with my girlfriend during our long distance relationship…

    And really, it is as easy as a normal call. Just pick up. if someone calls you or just dpuble click on his or her name to start a video call. Plus: most of the people i know have their computers alsways on.

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  3. Breaking things down to gender stereotypes, men don’t care about being presentable all the time, and women would insist on looking good. Face-to-face calling just isn’t compatible with our need for downtime. That doesn’t mean video isn’t useful in calls, it’s just that your face is much less important than a picture of things people are describing.

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  4. I think the problems facing the iSight are far simpler. Price and compaitibility. especially here in the UK

    The isight camera on its own costs around £90. Its a good bit of kit, but for that amount you want it to do a bit more than just send video.

    Another problem is that skype is the only app that makes use of it and is widely adopted. here in the UK 99% of people use msn, which ichat is not compatable with, and the MSN messenger for mac doesnt do video. So right away the only people who use it here in the UK are skype users.

    the isight is a good product, but apple needs to either get on board with the IM protocols (other than AIM) or come up with another way to talk to people. No one in the UK is going to get an AIM or .Mac account tot alk to their friend in ichat. especially with .Mac setting you back £60 a year

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    1. Thanks Ben, that saved me a lot of typing.

      If only iChat could communicate with the MSN and Yahoo! chat clients it’d be a much better tool and, probably, more widely used – well, in the UK anyway.

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    2. Can you still buy the external iSight camera in Europe? I thought Apple removed them from the market almost 4 years ago, before a new European environmental law went into effect. Had to do with use of certain chemicals in the device (RoHS/lead?).

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    3. Frank. It can be purchased through Amazon and eBay as used and some people charge twice what the original retail price was (orig. $129). Then again, most computers Apple sells right now include the iSight for free.

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  5. This is one of the strangest articles I’ve ever read. I feel like I’m reading an article from the 1990’s. Fast forward to today — the year 2010 — and you will see that the iSight camera is a gigantic hit, which is why it is now included — for free — with every single Apple product. And why millions of people use it for video chats every day in a variety of different applications, such as iChat and Skype.

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    1. I’m with Scott. This article is outdated. Have’t you heard of chatroulette?

      I use the built-in iSight in my laptop for iChat, Yahoo, MSN and Skype conferences with people across the country/world as well as taking snap shots with PhotoBooth. I also have an original iSight that I use sometimes because it’s just better quality than the built-in camera.

      “iSight: What’s Happening?”
      The answer is this author forgot about it while the rest of the world was using it as a major communication tool. Sorry you got left behind. Personally, I would venture to claim that the iSight and iChatAV are a major reason why “some” people choose to purchase a Mac over a Windows computer.

      Are you claiming that because cell phone providers haven’t had the infrastructure in place to enable live, two-way video chat that Apple Computer’s built-in iSight has been forgotten? That’s comparable to saying because On-Star has not taken off for General Motors people are no longer buying Chevrolets.

      “Of all of the system components on today’s Mac, I’d say iSight is just below the use of the superdrive.” You have got to be kidding?! You might want to ask around and hit up some of twitter followers before you make such bizarre claims. Who uses optical discs anymore?!

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      1. Adam Jackson Friday, April 23, 2010

        Thanks for the reply Anthony.

        I’m still looking for solid statistics. How many people in The US own a notebook (mac or PC) with a built in webcam and how many of them actually use that for person to person conversations in an average week.

        my work requires me to meet and evaluate how people use their computers and video conferencing isn’t at the top of anyone’s list that I’ve worked with.

        The conversation ended with a question so I could hear how people use their iSight and thank you for responding with your experiences.

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    2. I agree. iSight is an amazing feature that I use every day.

      I couldn’t own a laptop without a front-facing camera.

      Who wrote this article?

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  6. There are millions of phones out there with front facing cameras
    Do you know anybody using this camera to hold a conversation ?
    I don’t
    The people I know tried it once or twice to see how it worked and never used it again

    Why ?

    Maybe because video calling is much more awkward than simple voice calling ?

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  7. Interesting topic!
    Here’s my simple take: IM’ing or emailing can be done silently and discretely…. people don’t want to have to dress up before each video chat. Best used as cheap alternative to international video conference calls (I know a company which specifically bought the 24″ iMacs solely for that purpose only), but for personal, there’s a huge inertia against it.
    Who knows, maybe the iPhone enabled with iChat might make it popular again. I for sure would use it more for letting my wife at home help me decide what she wants in the shops.

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  8. I’ve had the Firewire iSight since it was introduced. I’ve used it, but it’s spent way more time being the Microphone for my G5 and now Mac Pro than doing video work. Most people I have in my chat list just don’t want to video chat. (Computing in their underwear maybe?)

    Great concept for a low demand item I suspect.

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  9. I’d probably try it, but in truth, I bet I’d still primarily use the built-in camera on my Macbook for my Skype video calls. I once thought it would be a cool thing to have on my iPhone, but in reality it will probably get used more by kids who want to take a self-portrait to upload to Facebook.

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  10. you know we all know there is a front facing camera on the new iPhone since it was found in the wild…but I’m not sure what I would use it for…I don’t even video chat on my macbook…so I’m not sure…but it’s nice to have the option if I want to

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