Apple Will Make Mobile Video Calling Ubiquitous
Sep 14, 2010 5:00 AM PT
When I first learned about Apple's FaceTime video-calling feature on its iPhone 4 units, I was a bit skeptical. I thought there were too many hoops to jump through. I thought Apple's TV ad with families gushing over newborn babies and showing off ultrasounds to soldiers was just a sappy marketing ploy. And the free 888 FaceTime number Apple created to let customers FaceTime with some stranger employed by Apple? I never bothered to try it out.
After using it, though, I realize I was wrong.
Now, one thing is certain: Apple's FaceTime video calling simply rocks. It's just plain goodness all wrapped up in a seamless user interface, behind-the-scenes magic -- and it has surprisingly clear video and audio quality.
Yet, there still are some pesky hoops: You've got to be connected to WiFi for it work. The person you're calling has to have a FaceTime-capable device, namely an iPhone 4 or a new iPod touch that has both front and back cameras. And the person you're calling also has to be connected to a WiFi network.
So why WiFi? Because for the most part, cellular service providers in the U.S. can't yet handle the data traffic. If iPhones and iPads can already clog AT&T systems, FaceTime surely won't help.
As it turns out, though, Apple has ingeniously integrated FaceTime into the iPhone 4. You can start a regular call, then, once connected, tap a FaceTime button and initiate a FaceTime video call, which drops the cellular service call and transmits the call over WiFi with FaceTime. The transition is surprisingly fast and easy.
In addition, if you know a person has a FaceTime device, then by tapping a FaceTime button -- which is part of a person's contact information on your iPhone -- you can initiate a FaceTime call without your cellular service provider's help at all. Get this: Even if you set your iPhone to Airplane Mode so that the cellular radio portion of your phone is inactive, you can still use WiFi, and if you've got a WiFi connection, you can FaceTime.
Here's What Sold Me
So, a close friend of mine was recently hospitalized. In some rooms of a hospital, you can have an active cellphone, depending the hospital's rules. In other rooms, apparently cellphones can adversely impact certain life support equipment. I don't know the details or the true level of risk, but the nurses can be pretty adamant about it.
WiFi, on the other hand, is just fine. In fact, in some hospitals, the WiFi is totally free and open, and in others, you can get access to it if you're a patient. Either way, my friend was hospitalized, and she not only had WiFi, but an all-important iPhone 4.
I know what you're thinking: Yeah, right, as if there are any chicks who would like to FaceTime with video while stuck in a hospital room with poor lighting, no makeup, and IVs and such poking out of her.
However, she needed some fresh clothes -- and the problem? The clothes were 300 miles away, where I was. But I was heading to the hospital the next day. Obviously, I could enter her closet, retrieve some clothes, and take them to her -- but that's more easily said then done.
There's a reason men stay away from women's purses, and the same goes for closets. Which of the black pants does she really want? Which shirts are loose enough for hospital attire? Which are the comfy bras? It's an epic failure waiting to happen.
You see where this is going. We FaceTimed. Because you can switch the view from the front camera to the back camera, you can show someone what you're seeing, in real-time. So I went through her closet, showing her clothes. It went something like this:
"How about this shirt?"
"Eh, I hate that shirt!"
"And this one?"
"Fine, bring it."
"This pair of lace underwear looks nice, want these?"
"Focus, Chris! Show me the sweatpants!"
The important thing is, I got out of the situation alive. Thanks to FaceTime.
The Apple Catalyst
Cutting to the chase, here's the deal: Apple will make mobile video conferencing a reality. Apple won't do this because it will have the only good mobile video calling solution -- because while this is true right now, it won't be true for very long. Adobe is working on a solution it's calling "FlashTime" that will let developers create and embed video-calling features into apps. Android has a couple of solutions available, but they don't have the same Apple polish or marketing force, and marketing force, it turns out, is the true catalyst here.
Consider the Apple television ads. Apple has consistently made ads that show how easy it is to use an iPhone, including apps, and those commercials have permeated the consumer technology consciousness so that it's now easier to sell Android-based phones because people already get the basic idea.
The bottom line is, Apple can teach you how to use a feature in 30 seconds. For instance, while Skype has had some interesting TV commercials showing off brand new babies that also pull at emotional strings, most watchers still have little idea how video Skype actually works. Apple can tap an emotional response and show you how to use their products at the same time. Few companies are able to do that.
Second, Apple has a near-instant install base of millions of potential users. There's no separate application to find and install; FaceTime is built-in. If Steve Jobs is right, FaceTime will be on tens of millions of devices by the end of this year. That's a lot of people -- and frankly, it's a group of people who are likely to be able to talk to each other.
If a parent has an iPhone, there's a decent chance there's also an iPod touch in the household, or there's a chance a child might get one as a present. I know my family, friends and colleagues who have iPhones . . . how? I don't know. It just comes up. Natural affinities, I guess.
Meanwhile, because Apple set the standard for ease of use, plus has the worldwide ability to reach millions of consumers with its message, Apple has become a catalyst for change. From here on out, will any smartphone manufacturer even consider building phones without front and back cameras?
Similarly, it's a given that Apple will bring FaceTime to iChat or, more likely, create a new FaceTime-branded application for Mac OS X. There's a reason all MacBooks and iMacs have built-in cameras. At some point, Apple may even play nice with those who are less fortunate and use devices or PCs that Apple didn't build. Eventually.
My main point is this: I'm not saying that we would not have gotten to ubiquitous mobile video calling without Apple -- I'm just saying that Apple is a catalyst that is ensuring that we'll get it much sooner.
Many companies are able to reach out and feel the pulse of everyday consumers, but few companies have the ability to reach out and make their hearts beat faster with excitement.
Apple can, and I bet we'll see more FaceTime action that'll stoke the video-calling fires.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.