When the iPhone 4 prototype seemed to drop from heaven to us mortals in a bar in Redwood City, California one of the immediate take-aways was the forward-facing camera. Long listed as a must-have accessory on the checklists of tech pundits everywhere, it seemed like we were just on the tip of some undefined video calling revolution. A future defined by the Jetson’s where we could call our spouse, show them the choices at the grocery store, and ask them just which brand of juice they wanted. A future where, unfortunately, we could no longer show up for conference calls in our gym pants on work-at-home days. Yet, even as those things seem more and more like possibilities, it seems premature to believe they will be revolutionary or become commonplace. Will the iPhone 4 usher in a video calling revolution? Let’s explore the area and see what we come up with.
The iPhone 4, with its forward-facing camera and FaceTime application, is certainly an interesting piece of hardware. To call it revolutionary though would require channeling a bit of Steve’s famous hyperbole. Video calling as an available technology is really very old. Skype has been doing video calling since version 2 and iPhone apps like Fring have support for it as well. The front-facing camera that makes video calling practical (versus trying to aim a rear-facing camera) is also nothing new. The HTC/Sprint EVO 4G smartphone sports a front-facing camera and other devices in the past have as well. Every time someone declares their device or service is going to revolutionize the video calling space, initial excitement leads to long term disappointment. The problem lies in the same one that vexes the iPhone 4; proprietary software. Skype users can only call Skype users, EVO users can only call EVO users, and iPhone users can only call iPhone users. While the new FaceTime application / API is marketed as an open standard, one has to wonder if it will be an open standard on Apple’s terms. Is Apple able to look past the issues it has with controlling the user experience to understand that the more devices that use FaceTime, the better overall it will be for iPhone sales? Apple has a vested interest in making FaceTime a new standard like QuickTime but one has to wonder whether Apple will be able to let go and see where the standard leads. Would Apple be able to accept an Android app that supported video calling through the FaceTime standard? I may be shortsighted but I think such an application would fall into the approvals limbo the Google Voice application lives in; officially unapproved but not officially banned.
And in the end, if anything is going to hold back FaceTime-supported video calling, it will be Apple. Hamstrung by a bureaucratic process that requires official approval of everything, many large companies will be reticent to use an Apple-developed standard in their own technology. Many large mobile companies also have their own standard or technology they would like others to adopt, why would they offer support for a competitor? And lastly the real hurdle is how the mobile marketplace currently finds itself divided. In today’s world it’s iPhone versus Android versus RIM. Can you see either Google or RIM forming an alliance with Apple by supporting their standard? In a lot of ways, Apple has perfectly positioned this aspect of iPhone 4. By creating a situation where they offer their video calling technology as an open standard with the full knowledge no one will actually adopt it, they have some ammunition against the critics that say all they make are closed systems.
While the iPhone 4 and FaceTime will certainly give video calling a higher visibility than it previously enjoyed, I would hesitate to call it a revolution. Revolutions completely overturn the status quo in favor of some new and unexpected direction. The French Revolution threw out the monarchy in favor of an almost anarchist democracy. The iPad is a revolution because it threw out the mouse, keyboard, and monitor in favor of an unobtrusive and all-in-one device. Video calling is not a revolution. While the iPhone 4 may embody what Steve would have us believe is Apple’s perfection of the service, it’s still a service that has been available before and isn’t going to toss out the voice-only standard. Of course half the fun of the tech industry is that in a year I may look back at this article and wonder how I could be so miserably wrong. But then I’ll just laugh, grab my iPhone 4, and video call my wife to ask her what I should make for supper.
What do you think of video calling? Will the iPhone 4 ignite a revolution of video calling where others have failed? Will FaceTime become the de facto standard or end up on the heap with other video calling codecs? Leave us your thoughts in the comments section.
Cast your vote.