With much fanfare Apple announced that the forthcoming iPhone 4 will include a front-facing video camera and allow making video calls. Given that people everywhere in the world except the USA have been able to make video calls for at least five years now, what's really new about Apple's FaceTime? More importantly, given that all those people aren't making that many video calls, can Apple's trend-making machine succeed where everyone else has failed?
This wouldn't be the first time when Apple found success where others feared to tread. After the lackluster adoption of Palm and Windows Mobile, the conventional wisdom in the mobile industry was that, except for Japan, consumers would not buy a phone with a touch screen. As Samuel Clemens might have said, the reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. Apple showed that with a vastly superior implementation and more than a little hype they could redefine an entire market.
The current state of mobile video calling may be similarly positioned for an overhaul. While all the major wireless operators (outside the US) and handset manufacturers have been offering interoperable video calling for years via the 3G-324M protocol, that standard was designed for a single 64 kbps circuit-switched channel and could only deliver a jerky (12 fps), small (176x144) picture on what was usually a tiny cell phone screen. In contrast, the FaceTime protocol is designed to take advantage of the presumably faster WiFi networks and the 960 x 640 iPhone 4 display. While Apple is touting the WiFi connection as a feature it may also be a bug, since both parties in the call will need to be near a WiFi hotspot - not exactly what one would call "mobile." While Steve Jobs alluded to the potential for future connectivity on 3G and 4G wireless networks, the iPhone 4 announcement was preceded a few days earlier by AT&T's announcement that they would no longer offer "all you can eat" pricing on their data plans.
Amidst all the noise from Apple overshadowed the technically more significant debut from Sprint and HTC's of the EVO 4G. This Android phone not only has a front-facing camera with video calling, but runs on the much faster WiMAX network that Sprint is rolling out - and with a pricing plan that is not usage-based. While the EVO 4G's size and battery consumption have earned it the title of The Hummer of smartphones, one can hope that the competition will be good for consumers.
Of course features and technology are only part of the equation. The real issue is will consumers want to look at each other on their mobile phones, especially when the camera angle may be unflattering and not especially private (you need a headset or speakerphone since you can't hold the phone to your ear and still see the picture.)
There is also the issue of standards. At the iPhone 4 launch, Jobs made a point about how FaceTime was based on open standards such as H.264, AAC, SIP, etc. Of course if openness and interoperability was really the point, why not just make the iPhone be able to call any SIP videoconferencing system. For that matter, why can;t the iPhone call and iChat user sitting at their Mac, since iChat uses most of these same standards. Most likely Apple has added some extensions to make it possible to automatically detect if the person you are calling is also on an iPhone 4 and connected to a WiFi hotspot. It will be interesting to see how quickly Apple publishes the FaceTime spec, whether it makes the stack available (similar to what it did with WebKit) and whether it places any restrictions on its use. A good test will be how easy Apple makes it for Skype to interoperate. Will Apple allow Skype users at their desktop to call iPhone 4 users running FaceTime? Will it allow Skype to run its own application on the iPhone or will it ban such apps from the App Store as being "duplicative" of Apple's natice functionality.
If you don't want to wait to find out, you could always load Fring on your Android phone. The screen shot at right is from the Skype client, running on Windows, making a video call to the Fring application on an HTC Google Nexus One over the AT&T HSDPA 3G network. The video quality isn't great, but it demonstrates that what's holding things back today is not the technology.
At the end of the day, the thing that may make the difference is the hoard of people standing in line at every Apple and AT&T store desperately trying to get their hands on a new iPhone 4. If Apple has really pre-sold 600,000 of these already, there may finally be a critical mass of video-enabled phones with a bunch of people looking for a way to show off their newest acquisition.