Blog Post

Can FaceTime Revitalize Video Conferencing?

Just over two months ago, I wrote a post expressing my thoughts on Apple’s (s aapl) iSight webcam and how eight years of investment from Apple and over 15 years of investment from larger tech companies like Microsoft (s msft), Intel (s intc) and Logitech (s logi) 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.

22 Responses to “Can FaceTime Revitalize Video Conferencing?”

  1. when the gizmodo’s note says “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.”

    That is not awkward to me at all… I think just because of the modality of the communication.. Spoken through the mouths/voices might be awkward. But to me, Deaf person and other many Deaf people around the US dont find this as awkward AT ALL! We, the Deaf people, uses the ASL(American Sign Language) a different modality of communication… solely based on visual communication… the Face Time is the holygrail for us.

  2. Steven

    I agree there is a concern about how much value this technology actually holds in this day and age.

    When the possibilities of video conversation first arose, it was the late 60’s/early 70’s, and AT&T was hoping to parlay a nascent technology into big bucks. Like a lot of things, it was a great idea without the communications infrastructure necessary to support it. It was thought to be a great idea because at the time society valued face-to-face interaction much more highly than it does now. Today, with the amount of data-only communication we engage in, video conversation is almost “old-school.”

    That being said, I believe that if Face Time is widely adopted, the ease-of-use it incorporates could possibly overcome some of the impersonal social habits we’ve accumulated and bring us back to a time when we valued looking a person in the eye.

  3. No, it won’t. By limiting htis feature to iPhone 4 phones only the entry market is too high. Some are still enjoying their iPhone 3GS.

    If they were to introduce Facetime to the Mac OS X it would help increase the activity making people see the benefit.

    Personally I have only use Video Calling only 2-3 times. And that was on two old HTC phones.

  4. Victor

    Maybe it’s just because nobody I know has an iPhone 4 but honestly I didn’t even want the iPhone 4 to have video chat. I think it’s a dead idea. The video chat idea originated when people were much more focused and less interested in multitasking. Now society has changed and nobody wants to sit down, turn off everything around them, stop walking, stop driving, stop surfing the internet, and look at a moving picture of the person you’re talking to. It hasn’t worked for computers and it probably won’t work on cell phones (it hasn’t yet, and Apple’s implementation isn’t anything special).

    The only way this whole thing might work is if Apple is able to do a google voice esque service that is fully integrated across all platforms, iPods, iPads, desktops and laptops.

  5. Im hoping that facetime can be integrated with other applications, such as Beejive or IM+ so that users can do webcam chat with users of msn who are sat at their computers.

  6. Tomas McGuinness

    I chuckled when Jobs and Ive said “it’s now real”. Have they been living under a rock? I made my first video call to a friend on a Sony Ericsson V800. This was in early 2005!

    Video calling over 3G has been available in Europe since 2004. It works across a variety phones and wireless networks. People just don’t use it. It’s a novelty that untimately loses its shine. Apple’s implementation is no different from that of Nokia or Samsung and the fact that it only works over Wi-Fi on the iPhone 4 isn’t going to help.

    Apple may inject some live back into video calling, but I think they’ve got their work cut out, especially as they’ve adopted different standards.

  7. Let’s see:

    For immportant business calls, I use a landline.
    For unimportant business calls, I don’t want to give up multi-tasking.
    For private calls, I know what the person looks like, thus I don’t need Facetime.
    Marketeers calling me refuse to use Facetime, even although I’d love to see them while they try to pitch me.

    Summa summarum: It’ll be an underutilized feature…

  8. Shaun

    To tell you the truth, I think FaceTime has made conversations a bit more personable again.

    Think about it. As time goes on, our forms of communication has become more and more insincere. Emails, text messages, talking on the phone (just by voice) – when was the last time we WEREN’T multitasking while talking to the people we care about?

    FaceTime, in a way, MAKES us pay attention. It feeds another one of our five fundamental senses (as in visual, not just audible). Sure, we won’t use it for every phone conversation – but it’ll certainly have its moments. I’m even tempted to say we’ll depend on it some day. Using it for business calls (and actually being able to SEE the client’s reaction to what we’re telling them), calling the babysitter to see how the kids are doing (literally, *see* how the kids are doing!), the possibilities are endless.

    This is a new ballgame compared to video conferencing that we’ve had on the computer. We are no longer tethered to such a large piece of equipment, and that unlocks many new opportunities right there that we may not have had otherwise.

    I guess time will tell, but that’s my prediction.

  9. This is a relatively new feature for the iPhone. However considering that most smartphones had this feature somewhat ages ago, I think Apple should have taken this a step further so it will go down as a new feature. However they have not and we are still waiting for an update.

  10. I would beg to differ on the use of FaceTime. The deaf and hard of hearing individuals will be the earliest adopters of video mobile chat. I have heard a lot of comments coming from those group of people saying that Apple got it right this time.

    Consider this, with webcam, skype, etc. The reason why it plateau and is not widely adopted is because it was not mobile. I mean, how often do you find yourself on the move all the time when you want to speak to someone? I do find myself mobile almost all of the time.

    Combining FaceTime and mobility…it is a perfect combination that is if you can find WIFI. Apple is bound to change the landscape forever. Trust me, especially with 20 million deaf and hard of hearing people. They have already adopted it.

    • Adam Jackson

      I don’t disagree and hope it does become huge and common across the globe but mobility? We’ve had notebooks with iSight cameras since 2005. The iPhone is still tethered to Wifi as a requirement to FaceTime (as are notebooks).

      It needs to be truly mobile.

      • MacDaddy

        Trust me….more people have cell phones than have laptops with webcams, let alone iSIGHT….PLUS….cell phones are a LOT more portable than a laptop…

  11. It’d be more convenient if it could be used over 3G, but even with the WiFi my girlfriend and I love using FaceTime while I’m at the office and she’s at school!

  12. I agree with the article that facetime and video conferencing in general might start becoming popular if they start opening it up to all phones. But at the same time it does defeat the point of being able to multitask while on the phone.

    Still a cool feature though, the technology is amazing.

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  13. Brett

    Before the iPhone 4 was announced people were video chatting cellphone to cellphone and they weren’t required to both be using an iphone 4. Why doesn’t Apple just use the multitude of preexisting video chat applications?

    • Adam Jackson

      Historically, Apple has to own it. Not always, but since the return of Jobs, Apple has owned the entire experience in nearly everything and the big move where Apple gave some of that away was letting Google profit on the success of the iPhone w/ Google Ads, Google Search, YouTube and other integrations. Apple’s starting to packpedal on that a bit now but if you look at Apple, they want to own it all and a 2011 Nokia phone that comes w/ FaceTime will have a foot-note saying, “FaceTime is a registered Trademark of Apple.” Apple has the control even if it is open and free.

      • Steven

        I think there is way too much ink devoted to Apple wanting to own and control everything without a discussion as to why. Apple provided Webkit to everyone, now even its competitors are using it to build a better web experience. Why? In part because anything which helps wean the world off Internet Explorer benefits Apple.

        Apple likes to control the technology only to the extent that it allows them to create and maintain a great user experience. Of course Apple had to open-source Face Time, not because it wants to control everything, but because it would make no sense for the technology to only benefit iPhone users – everyone we love and want to see and speak to doesn’t own an iPhone.

        It’s amazing how Apple is criticized even when it does the right thing.