Opinion: Don’t video call us, Steve, we’ll video call you

Apple's Face Time software is not good enough to overcome video calling's inherent issues.

Apple's Face Time software is not good enough to overcome video calling's inherent issues.

Steve Jobs suggested Apple was pioneering video call technology when introducing Face Time but all they did was perfect the pointless, says Adam Maguire.

It was by far the biggest stretch of Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field yet when he likened Apple’s Face Time software to technology from Star Trek and The Jetsons, saying he had spent years dreaming about video calling “and it’s real now!”.

This was far from a slip of the tongue or a mis-phrased statement. Jobs was genuinely trying to imply that Apple is breaking new ground with its video calling software. The distortion continues on the section of the Apple site dedicated to Face Time, which states that “People have been dreaming about video calling for decades. iPhone 4 makes it a reality.”

Not only is this an over-exaggeration of the capability of the technology itself, it is also a purposefully misleading comment that suggests Apple has created something new.

Of course it had not.

The videophone has been a commercial reality since the early 1960s when it was pioneered by AT&T in the USA; the technology behind it was theoretically possible long before then with one-way video calls taking place as early as the 1920s.

More specifically mobile video phones have been a reality since the 1993 prototype ‘Intellect‘ phone, with front-facing cameras a standard feature on a majority of mid and high-end phones today.

Of course not introducing a technology does not mean you won’t revolutionise with it; a hit with video calling would not be the first time Apple have come late to the market but led in it regardless.

The touchscreen phone concept itself is the perfect example of this, with touch-based devices being available commercially for years before Apple made it popular in 2007.

The app store is another great example of Apple perfecting existing concepts. Downloadable apps for phones had been knocking around in various forms from the mid-1990s onwards, selling javascript games and tools to an array of devices. All Apple did was create a centralised outlet that was designed for a specific platform and it created a billion dollar industry overnight as a result.

However there is little hope of Apple revolutionising video call technology for a number of reasons. Firstly, its own deployment is hopelessly limited to the point of pointlessness.

For example; in order to place a video call a user will not only need an iPhone 4 but need to be sure the receiver has one too. After that both users will need to be sitting in a reliable WiFi network for the duration of the call, which is unlikely to happy purely by chance all that often.

In reality what iPhone 4 users will need to do is ring, e-mail or text ahead to ensure all the pieces are in place before they dial in – hardly the simplicity Apple and its fans love so much.

Put on top of that the issues that surround video calls in general and you have a serious problem. People traditionally dislike video calls because they are more work than voice-only (read this article – courtesy of Eoin O’Mahony at fiftythreedegrees.net) for examples of this very point). Video calls are also decidedly awkward to make on a mobile phone, as they require the user to hold their arm out in front of their face for the length of the call, ensuring to point the lens at them at all times.

The only thing that might save Apple’s Face Time from irrelevance is the allusion Jobs made during his keynote to potential growth for the software. He specifically said that the company would ship millions of Face Time “devices” in 2010, not citing the iPhone 4 alone.

Now this may be reading too much into things and perhaps he meant the phone alone. However knowing Apple’s strategy in the past there is every chance that the company plans to merge its new Face Time platform with iChat, or even release new products that allow for such functionality. The iPod Touch and iPad are both obvious fits, for example, though the latter is unlikely to happen until 2011 at least.

Even then, however, it is hard to see how Apple can overcome the inherent problems that exist with video calls. At most people will use them every once in a while, perhaps to show their child to their grandparents as Apple suggests. Overall, however, however the company may have just perfected the pointless.

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