How Apple Can Improve FaceTime

With Microsoft splashing out a few dollars on Skype this week, the communication platform has once again hit the headlines. The numbers are impressive – 207 billion minutes of voice and video conversations in 2010 is nothing to be laughed at, and it’s clear that this medium is growing in a big way.

Although Apple has had a foot in the door with iChat for several years, FaceTime has been their major foray into video communication – initially on the iPhone, and now also on the Mac. It’s been almost a year since the technology was announced at WWDC 2010, but I believe that FaceTime still has a long way to come – as does the whole concept of video communication – before it becomes a pervasive technology.

The Problem With Video Chat

Although video chat has long been pegged as the future of communication, it has an inherent problem that can be very difficult to overcome. Unlike audio or text-based communication, video is completely invasive. Wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, it’s all on show to the person on the other end of the line.

In principle, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I often find myself multi-tasking while on the telephone – checking email, Twitter, or wandering around my apartment. This is all too easy to do with audio communication, and something that I’m sure is blatantly obvious to the person I’m talking to. It’s easy to tell when you don’t have someone’s full attention, and it’s a very frustrating experience.

The idea of sitting down and talking to someone face-to-face is appealing, but it isn’t always appropriate. This is why Skype works well. The option of audio-only chat is the default communication medium (it’s by far the most common use of Skype for me), and you can enable video as you see fit.

With this in mind, FaceTime isn’t competing with Skype across the board, but focusing solely on the video call aspect. The advantage of this is immediately obvious when looking at the interface of the two apps:

Skype and FaceTime Compared

Skype and FaceTime Compared

Free of the bells and whistles required for instant messaging, audio chat, a credit balance, and everything else that comes with Skype, FaceTime is able to offer a wonderfully simple experience. It does one thing well.

I’m not going to delve into the issue surrounding mobile access and data usage, though it is an important consideration. FaceTime uses around 3MB of data per minute, and it would to be ongoing battle with carriers – and cell technology – to make using it on 3G a possibility.

Who Can I Call?

Accept, or Decline?

Accept, or Decline?

But this strive for a minimal experience causes me a headache whenever I come to use the application. The problem is that I have 274 contacts showing up in FaceTime for Mac, of which I would estimate – at most – 20 actually have a FaceTime capable device.

This is a fairly major stumbling block, and it means that I simply don’t know who I can or cannot call using the service. There’s no way to quickly determine whether a person has FaceTime, or has it turned on at present. Some sort of “available” indicator would be phenomenally useful for showing not only who has a FaceTime device, but also whether they can be contacted at the current moment in time.

But even if this was added, I encounter another problem. Unless you know someone phenomenally well, calling them for an immediate video chat feels like a social faux pas. At the very least, you’d want to have a quick chat on IM with them first to see whether they’re free.

Sure, FaceTime offers a dialog to accept or reject a call as it comes in, but this isn’t really the same thing. It’s an accept/decline decision, and doesn’t give you a chance to explain why you’re rejecting their call, or let the caller know that you’ll ring back in five minutes. Although you have the same situation with a regular telephone, it’s less of a problem because the method of communication is less invasive.

It also doesn’t help that the pop-up response you receive is the same whether your call was actually declined, or just not responded to.

Open It Up!

For FaceTime to take off in a major way, it needs to become more than just a niche communication platform for Mac and iOS users. Although I do have several tech-savvy friends using the latest Apple devices, the huge majority do not.

Right at the outset, Apple had a plan to overcome this problem – by making FaceTime an open platform. This means that other developers could incorporate FaceTime communication into their software, breaking away from it being an exclusive network for Apple customers. It would be a public standard that anyone could work with, no longer restricted to software developed by Apple.

The problem is that it’s a year since Apple made this promise, and we’re yet to see any sign of FaceTime becoming “open”. A few people have written about this recently, highlighting the long wait.

If there’s one thing that we have learned about Apple over the years, it’s that they would always prefer to wait to release a perfect implementation of a system, rather than rush out an unfinished product. It was the case with copy-and-paste on the iPhone, the development of the iPad, the original iPhone App Store, and the list goes on… It would be foolish to assume that Apple is simply no longer working on opening up FaceTime. They have made a significant investment in the platform, and undoubtedly want it to succeed. Maybe this is something we’ll hear more about at WWDC – I certainly hope so.

A Magical Future

Ever since we saw the first iteration of group video calling in iChat AV 3, it was clear that Apple (and quite possibly Steve Jobs in particular) wanted to make a commitment to video communication. The key to its continued importance is that video chat has the ability to look and feel magical, a word that Apple has latched on to in recent years.

Video takes communication to a completely new level, and makes for a futuristic experience. But at the same time it introduces a major new set of challenges and expectations. I’m thrilled that Apple is moving into this niche with such gusto, but feel that FaceTime still has some way to come before it offers strong competition to Skype, or becomes a viable communication platform that I use on a daily basis.

What do you think? Would you agree, or do you think that FaceTime is already a very useful communication medium? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.


Add Yours
  • I think that apple will merge iChat and Facetime when Lion OS will be released. Both services are used for communication and I don’t see the point to have two app for that. With this kind of app they will compete with Skype, that’s for sure.

    • I agree with you; if iChat had FaceTime baked–in, I’d be more inclined to use it. None of my friends have Macs or AIM, and there’s no support for Windows Live Messenger, so it sits — useless — in my Applications folder. Most of my friends do, however, have iPhones or iPods for FaceTime; it would be nice to finally use iChat; it’s by far the prettiest IM app.

      Unfortunately, I still haven’t seen any evidence that Apple will be making this move in Lion.

  • I think we can safely assume Apple just means to use 3G and soon 4G mobile network just for audio communications and 3G over wifi, most likely when you are at home or at work. So if you just want to have the audio, you can use your iPhone and have a regular conversation.
    In the future, when the mobile network will have gotten stronger in terms of bandwidth, maybe carrier will allow video communication as well, and Facetime will serve as an additional alternative to audio communication for those who will want to use it.
    At any rate, Apple has always built its strategic development roadmap by developing pieces of technology that eventually all come together for a wider purpose. So if we want to get the big picture, we need to ask ourself what is the end service, this piece of functionality Facetime represent, will be part of ?

    • I made a typo. I meant “Facetime over wifi”, not 3G.

  • The whole discussion is mute unless cell carriers loosen the grip on their wallets. That being said, I don’t think voice calls are ever going to gain any real popularity. Think about what you do when you’re talking to people on the phone in your day to day life. Now think about that person seeing you do it.

  • I think it’s interesting that Apple is charging for the Facetime Mac App. The beta was free and we all downloaded it, then they said “Now that you like it, you should give us money!” Meanwhile, iChat, a free built-in app, has video conferencing… a confusing overlap. Further, Skype obviously has video chat (even to phones), and is also free. FaceTime is practically void of useful features (like telling you who else has a FaceTime account), has far less active users than iChat or Skype, and Apple wants us to pay for it? It’s only $0.99, but what real value do I get for that dollar?

    • Cheapskate :-)

      I completely agree, though. The application has a long, long way to come for it to be particularly useful. As ever, I’m sure it’ll be a gradual process of iterative improvement.

  • I think Facetime started as a BRILLIANT idea on the iPhone and then lost it’s way a little. Whoever started it hasn’t got the clout (or Steve Jobs has been busy with other understandably more important things!)

    Facetime basics: You make a normal call just like a regular phone – and if both of you have iPhone 4s and are on wifi, the facetime logo should come up. Otherwise it doesn’t. Easy.

    First problem – we don’t want to pay $1 from our cap (in Australia) to start the call then switch to Facetime, so we try from Facetime first. It rings as if they can hear it ringin but they can’t if they’re not on wifi. It really needs to pop up with “Facetime connection unavailable. Call instead Y/N?”. Wouldn’t be a problem if we called first.

    Secondly, as the writer says, not answering doesn’t fit the current model. We need an answering machine (video?), we need an option to “answer with audio only” (but that will charge the caller, when Facetime was free!). This would also not be a problem if we started with a voice call, then “upgraded”.

    Thirdly, Facetime for Mac. Now things get confusing. Contact lists that include people we can’t facetime. And it can’t say who’s ‘available’ because the iPhone always assumes availability but only checks if it can switch on wifi when a call comes in. etc etc.

    So… solutions?

    1) audio only Facetime. Now if someone’s calling you, you can press “audio only”.

    2) FacetimeMac/iChat need to be able to make a call to a regular PSTN phone. Then they can behave exactly like an iPhone – start with a voice call then upgrade, etc.

    3) Better handling of uncompleted calls – videomail integrated into VVM, the ability to say no to video (and get audio instead), warn that facetime isn’t available and offer caller to make a cellphone call.

    4) Perhaps every call I attempt by starting with Facetime should do both facetime AND cellphone call – with the person I’m facetiming to defaulting to answering with facetime if that’s available, otherwise phone.

    5) I’d make Facetime for Mac use the same login as my iPhone, and also available to “upgrade” an iPhone call. So I’m video chatting on my iPhone, I open Facetime on my Mac and after checking with my phone (or facetime server?) it offers to “move current phone call to Mac”.

    6) Let facetime Mac integrate with non-iPhones. So my friend has Facetime on his computer setup with his non-iPhone number. I call my friend on his mobile phone (my iPhone tells the facetime server we’re talking), then while talking he opens his Facetime and his computer comes up with an option to “upgrade current phone call to Facetime”. He clicks that and the call moves to his computer speaking to my iPhone on Facetime.

    That’s the best I can come up with :)

    • Thanks for the insight, Greg. You raise some excellent points – it’s a tricky issue to get right. I hope Apple is reading…

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  • You missed my follow-up on VoiceIOFarEndVersionInfo, documented as interoperating with a hypothetical “3rd-party device following open FaceTime standards”. This constant was removed in the iOS 5 SDK, so I think that closes the door on Apple having any intention to open up Facetime to third parties. The Wikipedia entry also discusses why FaceTime’s use of a client-side certificate means it probably wouldn’t be practical for third-parties to develop their own implementations anyways.