Is a Mobile Video Chat Revolution Imminent?


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?

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