Is FaceTime Apple TV’s Killer App?

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Video chat in the living room was one of the big topics this week, with Logitech launching HD video chat on its new Google TV set-top box (dubbed Revue) and Cisco announcing its own consumer video conferencing solution. Notably absent from all of this has been Apple, whose Apple TV has been available for sale for a week now.

Apple TV has so far been a pretty bare-bones offering, albeit a pretty one. The box offers access to iTunes rentals as well as subscription video programming from Netflix, but Apple is expected to launch access to the iTunes app store some time next year. We asked our readers last week what kind of apps they’d like to see on their Apple TV, and one of the most-requested applications of this (admittedly completely unscientific) survey was FaceTime.

Bringing FaceTime to the Apple TV would make a lot of sense for Apple. The application has been a big hit on the iPhone and iPod touch, with some analysts even estimating that it’s the biggest driver for iPhone 4 adoption. Our friends over at GigaOM Pro estimate that we’ll see 2.7 billion TV-based video calls in 2015. It’s only logical for Apple to want a piece of that pie.

And then there’s the fact that the competition is moving slowly, offering Apple a huge opening. Google has its own video chat product, but it hasn’t ported that product to its mobile phones yet. Logitech’s video chat on its Google TV won’t immediately be available for Sony’s Google TV devices, meaning that the only people Revue owners will be able to chat with are other Revue owners willing to shell out another $150 for a HD video camera plus any of the three PC users that actually run Logitech’s software instead of Skype.

However, Logitech’s software is SIP-based, so the company could eventually make its service interoperable with Google Talk, and it’s only a matter of time before Google pushes its own video chat products beyond the desktop.

So what’s left is the question: Can the new Apple TV support FaceTime? The device obviously comes without a video camera, but it does feature a micro USB port. Apple has officially said that the port will be for “service and support,” allowing Apple store employees to restore your device in case things go wrong. However, there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t also be used to attach an external HD USB camera.

Apple started to sell its own iSight video camera in 2003, only to discontinue the product in favor of built-in video cameras in 2006. The original iSight had a Firewire interface, but the internal iSight cameras that can be found in current Macbooks and iMacs actually connect via USB. Adding an external USB camera to its lineup of accessories could help Apple to make the TV device, which comes with a pretty small hardware profit margin, even more profitable.

And finally, there’s the grandparent factor. GigaOM Pro analyst Michael Wolf put it this way when he wrote about the possibility of Facetime on Apple TV back in August:

“(I)t brings in a whole new demographic. While my mom and dad haven’t purchased an Apple product since the Apple IIe of my youth, I’m pretty sure they would consider a good, low-cost video-chat device.”

One of the biggest problems of over the top set-top box makers has been so far do expand beyond the demographic of a young, tech-savvy audience. However, once you have an easy-to-use box that allows HD video chats with your iPhone-using grandkids, you got a killer product.

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