Apple needs PC support to make FaceTime a Success

Thursday, July 1, 2010 ·

Apple’s iPhone 4 video calling stands a good chance at becoming a widely adopted system. But it’ll rely on a catalyst, and I believe it’s the PC.

Less specifically, I believe “FaceTime”, as Apple not-at-all-questionably calls it, will rely on all computers -- PC, Mac, even Linux and netbooks, and their software -- to support the system in order to really become the revolutionary offering Apple has made it out to be.

I’m certain Apple knows this, and that’s why its uncharacteristic move to make the FaceTime protocol an open standard didn’t surprise me. By doing so, software makers such as Skype can allow their users to turn PCs into FaceTime clients -- eliminating the need for both callers to be using the latest, costly iPhone.

It’s this cost that has traditionally been the hurdle over which video calling has stumbled. Cost, and of course its evil cousins: ghastly image quality, tiny screens and the fact that no-one wants to pay 50 pence per minute to appear to a caller as a mutilated pile of agitated skin and organs.

Case in point: I had a video call-capable phone circa 2003 (an NEC model on the just-launched Three network) and it was atrocious, not to mention expensive and restricted to a limited, just-born 3G carrier. Several months after buying it I called every single person I knew who had a compatible device, and neither of them wanted to talk to me using video. It was uncomfortable for us all, and I couldn’t afford the limited novelty anyway.

The iPhone’s hardly changing the cost issue with its £500 SIM-free price tag. But a number of other factors have changed in the years since: firstly, broadband. Circa 2002, broadband was in just 100,000 UK homes at a typical speed of 512Kbps. Today, my home connection is a 50Mbps fibre-optic line, and the Government saw 2Mbps as a minimum speed requirement for all homes as part of Digital Britain.

Secondly, Facebook, YouTube and our culture’s comfort with using video as a communication medium have all arisen in the time since video calling’s first appearances -- we “broadcast ourselves” without thinking twice, we liveblog over Qik, we show our danglies on Chatroulette. It’s a different social landscape.

Thirdly, thanks to netbooks and the low cost of laptops, I’d struggle to find a modern household today without a camera-equipped computer and Wi-Fi network. That wasn’t necessarily true back when video calling was being pushed as the reason to adopt a 3G cameraphone, and it effectively halves the number of people required to have a compatible mobile device, i.e. an iPhone 4.

Finally, unlike previous video-capable phones that used low-bandwidth 3GP video to fit tiny screens, the iPhone has a massive screen and a stonking good camera. Video calls actually look good; they’re compelling. Unlike before, videos no longer appear as postage stamp-sized collections of pixels fighting for the title of Most Indistinguishable Blob. Instead, when I call my brother from a hotel bar in Japan, he’ll be able to see the 10 cups of sake I’m drinking -- and they’re not big cups.

Combine all these factors and it’s clear that desktop adoption of FaceTime could be the catalyst to its success.

Apple just sold 1.7 million iPhone 4s in three days and claims it will sell “tens of millions of FaceTime devices this year” (a quote that initially led me to wonder if by “devices” Steve Jobs was also including Macs, incidentally). If the only barriers to entry are that one of you needs an iPhone, one of you needs a computer and you both need Wi-Fi, we’re actually ready -- technologically, financially and socially -- to adopt video calling, necessity be damned.

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