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Summary:

Video chat is one of those technologies that seemed to take forever to get a foothold in enterprise settings. There’s now a rush of mobile phones and tablets on the horizon that will put the ability for such chatting right in the user’s pocket.

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Video chat is one of those technologies that seemed to take forever to get a foothold in enterprise settings. The first chat systems were prohibitively expensive, even for corporations with deep pockets, and the implementation was often difficult to use. We saw video chatting become more commonplace with the addition of video to the free Skype program, and most notebook computers sold today have integrated web cams for video chatting. There’s also a rush of mobile phones and tablets on the horizon that will put the ability for such chatting right in the user’s pocket. We’ll soon see apps that leverage video chatting for both business and personal usage as well.

Until recently, mobile phones have lacked the primary requirement for video chatting — a front-facing camera. But two important phones are launching shortly with cameras specifically made for video chatting on the go.

It is almost a certainty the next iPhone will have a front-facing camera for chatting, based on a prototype unit lost/ stolen and sold recently. Apple hasn’t detailed its plans for the camera, but it’s not a stretch to believe an iChat implementation for the iPhone is on the way. It is likely that if consumer reaction to video chatting on the new iPhone is positive, we will also see future versions of the iPad with a similar camera.

Sprint, meanwhile, is launching the most advanced Android phone to date in early June. The EVO 4G includes a 4.3-inch display and a front-facing camera. Sprint and HTC (the handset’s OEM) are including video chat software, although it’s not clear who will provide the program (handsets distributed for early evaluation do not have the video chatting ability enabled). The EVO 4G will utilize the carrier’s WiMAX (4G) network for the video chatting data transmission.

A number of OEMs are preparing to release Nvidia Tegra, Android or Windows-based tablets, and all of these will handle video chatting natively. These slates will range in size from 5-inch handhelds to 10-inch tablets, and prices are expected to be low enough ($200 and up) to drive mass adoption.

There is no mistaking that the time is ripe to get into the mobile video chatting game. It is already big enough with tools from Skype, Google (Talk) and others, and it’s only going to get bigger. There are already millions of notebook owners in the mix, and when you add what is likely going to be millions of smartphone and tablet owners, the potential market for video chat offerings is going to be huge.

Why video chat?

But what actual benefits are provided by video chatting, especially doing so while mobile?

As more and more people work remotely, isolation from coworkers is a real problem, and emails and phone calls don’t go very far to alleviate that issue. Video chatting is a natural solution to provide personal interaction among team workers, something that can benefit both individuals and the enterprise.

The same is true for the individuals who manage those remote workers. In my past life as a consulting geophysicist, for instance, I managed a team of professionals scattered around the globe. Regular video chats were not only essential to oversee the work of team members, they also went a long way to maintaining a good working relationship with colleagues. I would trundle my laptop with web cam to a local coffee shop (or similar venue) and conduct a video chat so that coworkers could feel, for a few minutes, as if they were back home. I was told these sessions were the high point of their work week — how many workers tell their managers that and mean it? But these sessions would have been much easier to conduct with the numerous mobile devices soon to appear on the market, as opposed to laptops, and I think these new devices equipped with cameras are going to be positively received by consumers for similar reasons. Having video chat on a smartphone completely eliminates the need to haul that laptop along for such sessions.

Business professionals use the video chat feature on notebook computers now, but the ability to use it on other types of mobile devices could expand usage of the service from purely professional to personal. Video chatting with the family back home can be a real boon to workers on trips, and with the proper VoIP software, like Skype, individuals can do so for far cheaper than international voice-only phone calls. Those cheap calls will appeal to corporations with video thrown into the mix. Grandma can attend that birthday party from across the country. Aunt Sally can attend that graduation ceremony in real-time while overseas. Having a video camera on a smartphone capable of video chatting yields almost unlimited opportunities for better living and connectedness.

The time is ripe

The ventures that can bring imagination to the mobile video chat segment will be in a position to see outstanding returns. Move beyond simple chatting with video and add useful tools to augment the communication. Add value to the video chat process that takes advantage of the highly mobile nature of these upcoming devices with cameras. Make it simple for the video chat utilities to work with existing contact information in smartphones.

The opportunities are there and the potential market segment is large for those with innovations to improve the video chat process. Businesses will find potential with easier team meetings, no matter where team members happen to be. Developers can produce apps to leverage video chats into existing applications, once smartphones and tablets equipped with these cameras are commonplace. Professional workers can be where they need to be in person, even when traveling. Families can be closer, even in today’s often scattered life experiences.

The enterprise can take the internal help desk to new levels. It is far more productive to talk an employee through a problem while addressing them face to face. A picture is worth a thousand words, and in a complex explanation a video chat can be priceless. The possibilites are varied with mobile video chatting as part of the solution.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d): Are You Empowering Your Mobile Work Force?

  1. As much as I like video chat…I don’t see it being the “next big thing”. Video calls have long been available in many countries and for one reason or another it didn’t take off. Even with skype and other chat programs available on the phone I can’t see video calls to video calls being the norm.

    AT&T has a video share service but they use a back facing camera because they feel that people on the other end would want to see what you see rather than see you. Also, without a headset you’d have to be on speakerphone to talk and be seen. (What good is a cam when it is up to your ear?)

    Another thing to consider is the huge bandwidth that it will take on 3G and with unlimited going away…is it really worth the price? I would love video chat to be wildly popular…but I don’t see it happening…especially not mobile to mobile videochat.

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  2. AT&T can barely handle all of the data transmitted from iPhone3G and iPhone3GS…how the hell are they gonna handle people live-streaming video from the iPhoneHD?

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  3. at&t sold me a pair of Motorola a845′s during the days when they were using docomo’s UMTS to roll out “3G” here in the USA for the first time. One of the touted features was video chat and the phones had two cameras each.

    at&t never made the video chat work. They also abruptly changed 3G strategies and turned the network off underneath my phones one day. They promised to upgrade the a845′s to phones that worked on the new 3G but reneged on that promise.

    I thought video chat was going to be the next thing but the a845′s ate batteries like pigs. And the EVO seems to eat it’s battery rapidly even when not doing video chat… so I don’t know.

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  4. You, um, do realize that forward facing cameras are nothing new (most Nokias, etc have had them for years) with gasp video calls being commonplace (at least in Europe and Asia). Let’s face it, NA network operators (carriers) are the real reason this one is woefully behind the curve.

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    1. I’d agree with the first part of this (ie that forward facing cameras are nothing new in Europe – I’ve had loads!). But I don’t find using them commonplace – in fact I’ve never used the feature once myself. In fact I’ve only ever seen one person use it – an ex-colleague who took a video call from his Wife and Toddler!

      I would agree with James that there are people/circumstances that would find this useful. But I’m not convinced it’s mainstream. Maybe it’s been an idea before it’s time? I guess we’ll see.

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  5. Ain’t happening!!! Not because I’m a skeptic, but because service providers are too damn greedy. The infrastructure in the USA can barely handle 3G data, and the four providers are split even between GSM and the inferior CDMA technologies.

    HTC’s TyTN II had a front facing camera as well, but people seldom used it because, looking down at the camera, folks on the other end would get a great view of your nose hair. Some may like horror movies, but it was hardly suitable for boardroom use.

    I also don’t see it happening with carriers moving to tiered pricing – the heavy usage would result in obsessive overage charges for the consumer. The only two ways I can see this taking off, technology aside, is if carriers bite the bullet and offer unlimited usage, much the same way Sprint does currently, or as European providers have done, increase caps to 14GB. I would cheerfully pay $40/month for a mobile data plan that I can use freely as I like, than be charged $80 in overage fees and get ripped off month after month.

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  6. I think mobile video chat is not going to be a big thing at all.

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  7. I think video chat will increase over wifi, but not 3g. And let’s face it, the North American carriers just don’t have the bandwidth needed to provide a good experience

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    1. thenikjones Friday, June 4, 2010

      I agree with this. I think people saying “what use is it on a mobile, you’d need to use loudspeaker or get closeup of nasal hair?” are missing the point – you would do video calling on WiFi in an environment where a loudspeaker is acceptable – e.g. hotel room talking to your wife, or one exec talking to another at work – then use conventional speech-only calls as you do now.

      I don’t think video calling will replace voice-only, but add an extra string to your bow – I could use my phone for a task that I currently use my netbook for.

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      1. Why would a businessman want a videocall on a small phone? Wouldn’t he rather see it on a netbook or a laptop? And if it is really just about the call, why do you need video? I am not saying that there is not a use for it, but I just see the use being for the casual user on personal issues.

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      2. Stuart, ideally a laptop would be used, but I have taken business calls from customers whilst being a passenger in a car. If a call has to be made there and then, then use what is available even if it’s not the best tool for the job.

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  8. I doubt it. Increasingly, people can hardly be bothered to make voice calls and I have a hard time believing that behavior will change with the more intrusive nature of video chat.

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  9. I was very surprised to read this article. I guess the world really isn’t that small after all.

    As already stated in the comments, front facing cameras has been around for years – without being a fancy feature. So I don’t really see the new in that.

    As for videochat, it was the main selling point when the 3G network was rolled out in Denmark, and I can’t even tell you how many years have passed, but it’s alot. So that’s old news over here too.

    As I said, I was surprised to read this. To me, videochat is like every other 90′s scenario of the future, which seems old-fashioned now. But that might change, I’ll give you that.

    Just y’all wait ’til the iFolk get videochat going. There’s a good chance it might spread like waves in the water.

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  10. Kevin,
    There are just too many usability issues related to mobile video telephony. It exists for over 5 years in Europe and Asia with limited use. People will say it’s battery life, small screens, limited bandwidth, warming devices and crappy video.
    I’d say it’s the camera position. I wrote a while back about why the iPad won’t have a front facing camera. The same argument holds for the iPhone.
    It would be great to see if and how Apple solves this issue and the rest of the issues that barred this service to be adopted by consumers.
    Tsahi

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