Tuesday, 8 June 2010

We've Been Here Before

Anyone remember pre-historic times of 3G mobile telephony and all hype about how Video Calls will change the future of how we communicate? No? I'm not surprised. As it happens, sadly too often, with new technologies, it was much ado about, well, nothing. Or at least nothing much.

So, why do we suddenly have pretty much the same hype surrounding FaceTime feature of the upcoming iPhone 4?

It's a mystery to me, really. Changes everything? Again? I can surely believe the "again" part.

Oh, FaceTime, at launch, is sure to be working much, much better than video calls ever did - especially at launch. But this is not necessarily because Apple made any significant improvements to either the implementation or user experience. Because, you see, FaceTime is for the time being restricted only to WiFi connections, and only works between iPhones, and those have to be iPhone 4 at that (and presumably later ones, unless this "revolutionary" feature doesn't get silently "retired").

Yes, Apple made the FaceTime protocol available to all and sundry. But currently there are no other devices that have it implemented. Yes, there were hints, admittedly very strong, that 3G connections will support FaceTime in the future. But, especially with the sort of problems both AT&T and some non-US operators have with iPhones on 3G networks, I am highly sceptical the experience of FaceTime on 3G will be anything close to brilliant.

Finally, what about user experience? From what I've seen so far the only improvement on the original video call "experience" is that it's on a big(er) screen (and a full screen, too), and that it is better for the advances in CPUs (Apple A4 seem to pack a serious punch to be able to run both iPhone 4 and iPad).

Don't get me wrong. I am not knocking the user experience - yet.

First, what will happen when FaceTime calls are allowed over 3G (or even 3G to/from WiFi) is an unknown, but at the current state of 3G in general, and 3G networks in particular, I wouldn't be holding my breath. I am prepared to bet you it will not be significantly better (or worse, for that matter) compared to any two 3G phones with a front facing camera you can buy today (and could have bought many years ago, too - think Nokia N95, for example; oh, and it had WiFi, too). As a matter of fact - and as an example - days before world knew about FaceTime I tried Skype video call on my Nokia N900. It was over WiFi at both ends, the other end being an Acer One D250 netbook (no, not the one described here). And guess what? It looked every bit as good (or bad) as what Steve J demoed yesterday.

Second, and probably more important issue is whether the use case for video calls has changed in the past few years. I'll wager it hasn't. If it has, and there was a huge outcry from the users of - remember! - phones which already had the feature something would have probably happened already. But let's see what the use case is...

You take your phone and dial someone. Let's assume they also have a video call capable phone. For this analysis neither need be iPhone 4. You select a video call. But what do they do? They may be in a very public place (think busy commuter train). Do they want every single person around them to hear (unless they use headphone) or even see who they're talking to? Pretty much the same quandary applies to most public places (offices, sports matches, ..., you name them). Of course, the same applies to you, the caller - not just the callee. In any of these places you probably wouldn't even start a video call.

It seems that for a video call you'd require much more privacy than for just voice. And it's not just your privacy, but also the person's on the other end. You'll probably go somewhere quiet and private. But they must, too - and very often you don't know in advance where they'll be. If you did, maybe you wouldn't even want to call them in the first place? And then, they may not want you to know. Easy with just a voice call, obviously hiding something if they reject a video call without explanation. Are you sure you want to meet your husband's mistress?

So, it would seem that there wouldn't be that many sure-fire situations where a video call would be possible - or even desirable. And those situations where it would be will often be catered for by a much more comfortable piece of equipment than a phone. At least when using a PC you do not have to hold it in your hands - not even one hand. There also goes the supposed benefit for the deaf. I am quite sure that you cannot sign effectively using just one hand, while at the same time trying to aim the phone with the other so no part of a sign goes off screen.

The arguments in this vein just go on, and on, and on... If you don't believe me try it for yourself. Don't let yourself be wowed by slick phrases and demos. Just think how and when would you use a video call, and especially if the person on the other end of the line would even accept it.

To cut the long story short, for me, this FaceTime hype is just that - hype, and an empty one at that. We've been there Steve - and it didn't work out. At least the tablets were something a lot of people really, really wanted, but nobody managed to deliver (and you're not out of the woods with that either, yet). But video calling just fell flat on its little face. I suspect FaceTime faces a very similar future.