Video Calling: the next big thing (again?)

POSTED BY Global Administrator
On the off chance that it has escaped your attention – hey, it’s been a busy week, everyone’s talking about the World Cup so you might have missed it – Apple has launched a new iPhone. That’s the iPhone 4, to you and me. And, yes, the slimline iPhone looks lovely with all that aluminosilcate glass and that “stunning 3.5 inch Retina display” (I know it’s what the Apple PR says but, hey, it’s accurate), and yes, I do want to play with one and yes, it will clear the shelves in next to no time. But what’s the key USP this time? Well, it’s, um… video calling. No, Steve. No, no, no, no, no. Don’t worry, Steve, the iPhone 4 will sell, but not – NOT – because of video calling. Let’s return to the Apple PR. “Apple® today presented the new iPhone® 4 featuring FaceTime, which makes the dream of video calling a reality”. Point number one. Video calling been a reality for more than seven years now on the mobile. No one does it. Part of this is attributable to the rather iffy quality that has characterized video calling, but part of it – a very large part – is attributable to the fact that, under most circumstances, we’re not that bothered about seeing the person on the other end of the call. Yes, there are exceptions – talking to loved ones, making big, googy eyes at friends’ newborn babies (see Apple’s pretty video, accompanied by the gravelly tones of the peerless Louis Armstrong, for further examples) – but these are exceptions. And here I call to the stand my first witness: my ex-wife. Some years ago, when people were first raving about the delights of video calling (let me rephrase that: network operators were; people weren’t), I had a conversation about the various merits of the technology with the aforementioned lady, who looked at me in horror at the prospect. In no uncertain terms, I was informed that it was not a service she would be using: she didn’t want her friends seeing the state of her kitchen (particularly the way her then husband had left it) or in fact seeing her if she hadn’t had time to do her hair, makeup, etc. Similar sentiments were expressed by others of my acquaintance – although thankfully without reference to my culinary cleanliness – which led me to the opinion that frankly, adoption of mobile video calling would not be the killer app for 3G that the networks fervently believed that it would. An opinion that was reinforced when, frankly, usage of the service started off low and got lower. Back to the PR. “FaceTime is as mobile as your phone, so you can see your loved ones and friends anywhere there is Wi-Fi.” Point number two. There is a rather obvious incongruity here: if FaceTime was as mobile as your phone, you could see your loved ones and friends anywhere. However, it isn’t: Apple then carefully includes the rider about WiFi availability, which plainly isn’t as mobile as your phone: to try this for yourself, pull out your iPhone and search for WiFi in the middle of a field in Hampshire/West Sussex/pretty much anywhere rural. In fact, anywhere outside the home, office, or local branches of Starbuck’s or McDonalds. (I know that you get WiFi in libraries these days, but then libraries do take rather a dim view of conversations, video-enabled or not, so I’ve excluded them from what might be termed the video calling window of opportunity.) This is clearly a very important constraint on usage, but not nearly as significant as Point Number Three, which is the fact that you can only use FaceTime with other users of the iPhone 4. Who, by the end of this year, will number less than two per cent of subscribers even in markets such as the US and the UK. The problem here is that two-way communications require interoperability: if I want to call you, or text you, I’m not bothered whether you have a Nokia N95, a Motorola L2 or a Samsung F490: the call, the text, even the MMS will get through. But if I have an iPhone 4 and you don’t, well – that video call just isn’t going to happen. You may have sensed at this point that I haven’t entirely been won round to FaceTime. I feel obliged to point out that this emphatically negative perspective is not universally shared by my colleagues, with one – considerably less long in the tooth and considerably longer in the hair than your blogger – commenting “well, my mates have seen it and they’d use it all the time.” So is this a generation gap? In this post-Facebook, Web 2.0 world, people are certainly far more open about sharing their personal details – in some pictures, literally warts and all – so perhaps the recalcitrance towards mobile video calling demonstrated even five years ago will diminish in the medium term, along with consumer worries that their friends will make snide remarks to one another about the piles of unwashed dishes in the sink that they saw in their FaceTime call the other night. But not, I feel, just yet. And for the record, I am just getting over the flu, my nose looks like a war zone, so please, please don’t video call me…