FaceTime and the Future of Video Calling

Way back when I first became aware of the existence of a technology that could allow mobile handset-handset video chatting, my mind was thoroughly blown. Surely this was something that was only possible in the movies, and couldn’t exist in the real world, right?

But it was indeed possible. And long after it first became possible, Apple did what they always do, and refined power and utility down to awesomeness and perfection.

With the announcement of the iPhone 4, Apple announced to eagerly awaiting fans everywhere that their mobile device to trump all mobile devices would be capable of video chatting.

The Precursor

Apple’s venture into the video realm of device-to-device communication began with the iSight, an external camera connected to your computer via FireWire and used with iChat A/V, Apple-designed software for video conferencing. The external iSight was released in 2003, and while Skype was also founded in 2003, video conferencing wasn’t available on the platform until 2006.

Apple began embedding the iSight camera in the bezel of their laptops and desktop computers, and eventually discontinued the external FireWire iSight.

As of the Back To The Mac event in October, 2010, the iSight camera is being referred to as the FaceTime Camera, in accordance with the standard introduced in the iPhone 4.

The Standard

Apple built FaceTime using a collection of already-open standards including the H.264 video codec and the AAC audio codec, as well as the SIP signaling protocol for VoIP. However, despite these open standards, FaceTime is only available on Apple devices, and only over WiFi.

While FaceTime is currently a proprietary license, Apple intends to release it as an open standard and allow developers to work with it. But will this make it a communication standard for video calling?

The Future

In order for FaceTime to be adopted as an industry standard, Apple must follow through on their intention to open it’s availability to developers. This means that the technologies that power FaceTime have to be available for Windows, Android, and others (something that seems to me to be so un-Apple-like).

Also, the standard has to be able to be used over the cellular data network instead of WiFi only. This restriction (in my opinion) makes FaceTime a neat feature, but not exactly an example of streamlined communication. A major hurdle, however, in making FaceTime usable over the cellular network is data usage charges from the carrier.

FaceTime uses (as evidenced by jailbroken iPhones) roughly 3MB of data per minute of video chatting. This would pose less of a problem back in the days of unlimited data on the iPhone plan, but seems to me to be a serious issue when dealing with the cutthroat carriers and their thirst for monetizing every little item of your plan. Striking a balance between data usage costs and cellular network video chatting is crucial for FaceTime becoming a communication standard.

Finally, in order for FaceTime to become a communication standard, the proprietary-license grip Apple has on the associated technologies must be released. If it remains proprietary, it’s unlikely that it will become a widespread technology, much like Apple will (probably) never put BluRay drives (Sony proprietary license) into their products.

Conclusion

Personally, I think the idea of FaceTime becoming the standard for mobile device video communication is pretty fantastic. A uniform method for getting in contact with (and seeing!) people across multiple devices appeals to all the ideas that led me to become a Mac user to begin with.

However, widespread FaceTime usage will require Apple to play nice with others in a way that we’ve rarely seen them do before, and the likelihood of that happening remains to be seen.


  • Tom

    On the contrary, Apple have a huge number of open technologies which used and contributed by some of their largest rivals. Webkit for example is used in countless rival portable devices running an array of operating systems.

  • Daniel

    ” If it remains proprietary, it’s unlikely that it will become a widespread technology, much like Apple will (probably) never put BluRay drives (Sony proprietary license) into their products. ”

    Apple aren’t putting BluRay drives into their machine because of:

    1. They see the future as digital downloads, as does pretty much everyone else. They is no worth to putting a bdd into a machine if the technology will be gone within a few years.

    2. Also, they are smart people – If people want to watch HD content then they will have to buy it from the iTunes store.

  • Daniel

    ” If it remains proprietary, it’s unlikely that it will become a widespread technology, much like Apple will (probably) never put BluRay drives (Sony proprietary license) into their products. ”

    Apple aren’t putting BluRay drives into their machine because of:

    1. They see the future as digital downloads, as does pretty much everyone else. They is no worth to putting a bdd into a machine if the technology will be gone within a few years.

    2. Also, they are smart people – If people want to watch HD content then they will have to buy it from the iTunes store.

    It has nothing to do with bd being a proprietary sony product.

  • tcdesign

    It’s funny how people are getting excited about facetime and video-calling when it’s been around for years. We had video-calling in Europe back in 2004, 2005 and it eventually died off since it was simply to expensive. I guess it’s cool when using WiFi but I don’t think that it’ll ever get big with 3G/4G unless of course providers don’t charge anything for it :)

  • tommy

    The future of video calling? Skype has been around since 2003 and I dont think they are just going to disappear. Now the future of facetime, or other video technology, on mobile devices is a different story, and I agree that cellular network data usage might be a big factor in that. Would be nice ot see normal phone conversations be video in the near future.

  • http://flavors.me/laimagingcinema Arief Budiman

    Apple is only repackaging old technology. Video call has been around for ages on various handsets, especially in Japan. The Japanese even sell these handsets on street vending machine.

    old stuff, guys. nothing spectacular.

  • Bill

    Proprietary? Apple has already listed out the open standards they use for FaceTime. And made a big deal about it being open.

    Could you maybe wait until the Mac client comes out of beta before you call it all closed and proprietary?

  • http://tipb.com Bla1ze

    To those saying that video calling, etc has been around for years. Yes, it’s true..it has been around for years but it’s now just broadening it horizons beyond Japan and Europe so it still has plenty of time to grow. Not to mention, that stuff previously released is now, based off of old technology standards.

    Sure, Skype has had video for calling forever but umm, where are they now? They as of yet don’t even have a video capable client on mobile devices. If they were so far ahead, they should have been the ones to bring “FaceTime” to the masses not leave it for Apple.

    When I wanted to watch my kids open their Christmas present on Christmas morning this year as I’m not currently in the same country did I turn to Skype? No.. why? Cause Skype has been crap for the past week. I turned to FaceTime (iPod) and FaceTime (Mac).

    I’m far from a fan boy but there is no doubt about it, FaceTime may just be repackaged product from long ago but it’s been repackaged in a modern way which appeals to the masses like nothing before it has.

  • Jasha

    Facetime is a no go. Skype is the true winning horse here, for many reasons. Anyone saying that Facetime is going to be an “open” standard for many is just an Apple Fanboy.

    • http://www.fahmid.com Fahmid

      I agree with you, skype is the best. Smooth streaming, and user friendly. But i can’t comment on FaceTime because it’s not available in my country.. >:|

  • Tobias

    FaceTime is nice but has a really worse UI. Did you ever install FaceTime on your Mac? I have a huge addressbook and every entry is shown in the FaceTime contact list and then you have to guess who is FaceTime capable. Thats a total mess! Skype is really lightyears ahead in usability of video calling. You have a contactlist and you can instantly see who is capable of using video calling.

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