iSight: What’s Happening?


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?

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