Apple should have announced that FaceTime in iOS 4.1 would interoperate with its iChat IM client, which offers four-way video calls. Instead, it seems content to let these Skype-killers rot in their silos. Should Cisco pull off its rumored acquisition of Skype and its 10-way videoconferencing, Apple might be left without any ability to influence future developments in the field.
When will Apple get its act together on videoconferencing?
In some ways, that's a funny question to pose, given that
the company has in recent years done a good job of pushing the boundaries of
video chat technology, first when it added video capabilities to its iChat
instant messaging client a few years back, and more recently and dramatically,
with FaceTime for its mobile devices. These applications have obvious business
uses, but if Apple insists on keeping them locked in the role of toys for
consumers, it will be a missed opportunity that will live long in legend.
For all the oohing and aahing over FaceTime in the last few
months, the one thing left is whether the company has any plans in the works to
make it possible for FaceTime and iChat to work together. Today, those two
video chat systems are siloed, without any indication of when they will meet.
I can't imagine how FaceTime has come as far as it has
without offering that kind of interoperability. It's not a matter of the
technology being tied to mobile phone technology for video call setup; Apple is
including FaceTime capabilities in the new model of iPod Touch, so it would
seem that iChat-FaceTime video conversations are technically possible. Beyond
the simple wow factor this would create, it would present a great opportunity
for Apple to push its mindshare in the "classic" computing space, by leading
the friends and family of iPhone users to identify video chat with Apple and
with Mac OS X.
Apple can't afford to leave FaceTime and iChat to rot in
their silos while Skype steals its thunder. FaceTime is without a doubt a huge
selling point for the iPhone, and having used it during my review of iPhone 4,
I'm on the verge of swallowing my pride and throwing my budget out the window
to get one for keeps. FaceTime has limitations, of course; for example,
low-light situations prove challenging, and it's disconcerting to have the
video freeze when your conversation partner moves to another room. But I don't
get to see my nephews and nieces as much as I'd like to, and this is a great
way of combining the presence of a video chat with the portability of a phone
Somewhere in the not-too-distant future, Apple has to decide
whether it wants to play for keeps in the area of videoconferencing. Right now,
there are high-end solutions from outfits such as Tandberg, which Cisco bought
in April, and middle-range offerings from Polycom and others; these are based
on specialized hardware that just isn't practical for most businesses to
acquire and is even less so for consumers.
No, the mindshare leader today in low-budget
videoconferencing is Skype, which recently began beta testing a 10-way option
for its service that leaves iChat's four-way video calling in the dust. Skype
isn't tied as closely to a particular operating system as iChat is, and by itself,
this 10-way feature is a good explanation for why Cisco would want to buy Skype
outright, as rumors suggest. After all, if Cisco can build inexpensive VOIP
phones with video chat features, companies and individuals will rush to adopt
such devices, no matter what their limitations will be. This could also help
Cisco position its Linksys hardware as a cut above the offerings of D-Link,
Netgear and other consumer networking players, to say nothing of helping Cisco
steal a march on Panasonic, VTech and the rest of the consumer handset space.
In the best of all possible worlds, Apple would work with
Skype to make their videoconferencing technologies work together. But right
now, Apple can't even offer video chat between FaceTime and iChat; asking it to
cooperate with Skype (with or without Cisco) is wishing for a pony, if not a