FaceTime, iChat Must Merge

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 call.

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 unicorn.