Can FaceTime Revitalize Video Conferencing?


Just over two months ago, I wrote a post expressing my thoughts on Apple’s iSight webcam and how eight years of investment from Apple and over 15 years of investment from larger tech companies like Microsoft, Intel and Logitech yielded very little progress in making video conferencing a part of our everyday lives. I’d say the comments to that piece were 50/50 in agreeing with me on this fact. I still stand by my opinion stated there and have done quite a bit of research after writing that to back up much of what I said.

Video conferencing still isn’t taking off.

Someone at Apple truly believes in it and that’s a good sign as I think it can be the future one day. At around 11:30AM on the morning of Apple’s iPhone announcement, Steve Jobs made the first public FaceTime call with his friend Jony Ive:

Jobs: You know this amazing. I grew up with “The Jetsons” and “Star Trek,” dreaming about stuff like this, and here it is.

Ive: I grew up the same way. And it’s real now isn’t it?

Yes it is, but will people use it? Was video conferencing only going to take off if introduced in the 70s? Has society moved past video conferencing? I’ll say that FaceTime has zero chance of succeeding if Apple chooses to limit the technology to Apple devices. Apple’s strategy in 2003 with the release of iChat AV was to make it work with all AIM users as long as those users were using the latest version of AIM with a USB webcam, and ideally it’ll open up FaceTime technology to other phones as well.

[inline-ad]Opening FaceTime up is key and let’s hope that more companies jump in and adopt the technology so all of us can chat without barriers, communicate and interact face to face on any device. John Gruber posted this last week which threw a wrench in my FaceTime predictions where he notes Apple states that it will ship tens of millions of FaceTime devices in 2010 and he then goes on to predict that Apple could position FaceTime to completely eliminate the current carrier model of paying for minutes where all voice and video data are transmitted over HTTP via a simple data plan. An iPad with 3G could be a FaceTime device for one data price and still offer instant communications with anyone in the world.

Now we’re talking!

Of course, we still must tackle this hurdle of our social habits showing a completely different story when it comes to voice and video communications. Mobile minutes are down. Data use is up. Socially, at least in the U.S., we simply don’t talk on the phone as much as we did. Kids are texting, adults are IMing and the in-betweens are using e-mail and Twitter. My only phone conversation a week is reserved to a chat with my Mom and Dad who live at the other end of the country or with my girlfriend when I’m traveling. In those two instances, FaceTime would be perfect.

A point that I want to make that was said perfectly in Gizmodo’s FaceTime testing notes is:

Because what are you supposed to be looking at? What should you be showing? You’re used to talking on a phone and pacing around, skimming an email, doing something else at the same time. But with this, you can’t. You just hold your phone out in front of you, awkwardly, and look at the other person looking back at you, also awkwardly. And you wonder, why are we doing this?

So really, FaceTime is great if you actually have something you want to show someone, like a new outfit or your new house or your kid. But if you’re just calling to shoot the breeze? It’s…awkward.

The same can be said for iChat AV via iSight or Skype. The same can be said via video calling built into Nokia and other smartphones overseas and the same can be said for how our children in their teens use phones for texting instead of calling each other. There’s something you could be doing while on the phone or there’s simply an awkwardness about dedicating all of you in full vivid retina display quality to someone to communicate something that could be better done via voice or even text. It’s the truth.

Of course, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if FaceTime goes global and, in 2010, millions of devices from computers to tablet PCs to mobile phones ship with FaceTime enabled. If everyone walks around staring at each other in screens actually having real conversations instead of doing a million things at once, that will be a wonderful thing. You’ll be able to add, “saved humanity” to Apple’s achievements right alongside with largest music store and use of most adjectives in a single keynote.

I think any product that becomes cool and also something that forces us to stop and actually have a conversation nearly face-to-face will be good for the world and good for Apple. I just hope it’s not too late, but if a puppet can bring smiles to someone over FaceTime, maybe there’s hope.

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