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.


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.