Monday, January 30, 2012

Uniting Mobile Video Chat

Video chat has always been the "next big thing" on the horizon. Even when I was much younger, I recall technologists pontificating on the imminent explosion of video phones in every house, connected televisions, and more. Back then, I was convinced that I would be able to dial a number on the house phone and hit a button to turn on or off the video component, allowing me to truly see distant relatives and friends that are hard to connect with many times throughout a year.

Today we have all the pieces to the puzzle that makes up a complete video chat picture, but those pieces are misshapen and don't seem to really fit together into that smooth aftermath that rallies consumer adoption and, more importantly, consistent consumer use.

Nothing New Here
Even now you are likely thinking that Skype is the answer and that this article should be over. And you might be right.

Skype has been around for years and has incrementally improved on the video conferencing and chatting technology with a range of features including bandwidth detection which allows for fluid call quality changes so that each person on the chat sees video that is as good as it can be for the connection type they have. With their introduction of official mobile applications, you can now take the free video calling on the road with you. More importantly to me, I can call loved ones who are overseas for long periods of time without fancy equipment, incurring costs, or even being tied to my house.

OK, if Skype is so great, what's the problem? In one word...

Ah, yes. The holy grail of connectedness both for the consumer and the developer/publisher. Ubiquity is that magical point whereby former competitors stop aiming down their sights to destroy and instead focus on alliance and interconnection. It's the moment that countless companies and individuals stopped trying to create their own spin on a Facebook-like social media site and put their effort into creating apps, games, and plug-ins that would instead work with the reigning giant to allow better access to and from them. It's 3-4 types of octane at a pump instead of 100, accelerator on the right, brake on the left, and red means stop.

So has video chat achieved this and heralded a change in echo-fixation with the new new thing? Not quite.

When Apple rolled the iPhone 4, I remember my excitement at the FaceTime feature - their answer to mobile video calls. At the time, a standards-based API was loosely promised to the world and I thought to myself, "Wow - here it is! If anyone can pull this off and wrap everyone into the fold of one solid way to communicate like this, it just might be Apple."

You can imagine my disappointment now years later: FaceTime integration on their own Mac platform is so-so and the long-rumored Windows version is complete vapor. That open and standards-based API for connecting into FaceTime: nowhere to be found. Video calls require wi-fi connections which tether you (not very "mobile" really...) and you must both be on the iOS or Mac platform to connect. Not great, guys. Not great at all.

Skype actually does a much better job of fitting the bill, but still lacks in a huge way (that, I might note, really isn't their fault). For Skype (or any other service) to really meet what I see as a critical requirement for success and full consumer adoption, they have to either wear out the competing factions or deliver such a lethal feature set that leads them to that special seat at the table of true ubiquity...

Native Platform
Lately you might have noticed that some of the great tools for iOS and Android are getting "baked in" to the OS. For instance, Twitter (once you download the application) is available to a whole host of Apple-developed and 3rd party apps on iPhones and iPads courtesy of a recent update. You can tweet from just about anywhere.

This level of native integration into the basic lifeline of the device help push users past "what are you using for service X" and lets them focus on making the connection they set out to make. I don't have to think about what app or service (or network) I have to be on to tweet a picture - I just hit the menu and get to typing. For video chat and video conferencing, we need to see the same thing.

Ian Small wrote a blog post for OpenTok's blog in which he talks about this subject. Specifically, he was reacting to news of Microsoft acquiring Skype and how some were predicting (hoping?) that this might be a big enough play to align the rest of the video conference and chat vertical. Ian and I both seem to agree that this move wasn't big enough to catapult the industry or force hands. We also seem to agree that something has to give.

I am actually a pretty big fan of what the crew over at OpenTok is producing. They see this issue and are actually trying to do something about it by providing widgets and APIs for initiating video chats with on for more people.  These pieces are Javascript, HTML, and Flash based - so they cater to a wider audience than many other offerings out there. Further, there really is no "app" to install - these are embedded in web pages and other media.

But, even with the great works that OpenTok and others are doing, there is still the issue of the network.

When AT&T and Apple cooked the concept of forcing wi-fi for FaceTime calls (unless you jailbreak your device), people were irritated and I was one of them. FaceTime looked like a great and valid feature for getting people moved up onto the newest iOS platform (iPhone 4) at the time. The introduction of the speed bump imposed by only supporting wi-fi is a pretty big one. But not the biggest.

When I call another mobile number, I know I am going to reach that person independent of their carrier or network. In fact, the FCC has enforced a system whereby you can port your number form one carrier to the next, letting the number find you if you switch from Verizon's network to, say, T-Mobile. That number is, for most purposes, explicitly tied to that device.

Rather than trying to tie users to email addresses, why not service video chat and conferencing using this same technique? FaceTime tries to do this (while also supporting email addresses) but, as mentioned before, it just isn't catering to the wider audience. While I am sure someone thought this would be a great draw and cause a sense of exclusivity for Apple device owners, I am convinced this has caused quite a chill in what could otherwise have signaled a drastic change in how we conduct these types of communications. Specifically, if Apple would open up FaceTime (no, seriously) and promote it across a diverse group of platforms that they don't have to own, this feature would truly be great. For now, however, I can't video chat with the ease of calling my grandmother - and that is a failure that many can share.

Final Thoughts
My message to Skype: Seek out tighter native integration, find a way to replace the ugliness being implemented at the OS level, and make the service tie to numbers and email addresses.

My message to Apple: If this is your grand plan for video chat, give it up and let someone else step in. If you can work with another prouder (OpenTok, Skype, etc) and show you are paving the way towards ubiquity, you will regain the fan base of those that saw FaceTime flop.

My message to Google: Google+ has been a dud so far, but things like the Hangout feature are taking off and showing more promise. It's possible that you, once again, are going to have to drag us all, kicking and screaming, towards the "right thing to do."

My message to the networks: If you were to solve these issues at the network layer and push the solution down to devices it would be both a miracle and a promise kept. Now is the time to stop thinking in voice and data separately. Is video conferencing and chat a new service offering with a new charge that will allow its use over standard 3G connections? Maybe. Figure it out.

And last, my message to Microsoft: What the heck happened, man?

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