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.