Apple’s FaceTime Slight of Hand – It Isn’t About Video Chat

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Two days into using Apple’s new FaceTime on the iPhone 4, and I’m coming to a realization… despite what Apple may say, FaceTime isn’t about video chat, it’s about Apple moving into yet another area of communications. Bear with me while I try to explain…

With the arrival of over 600,000 new iPhone’s Apple has quickly introduced a brand-new communications system. Going by the name of FaceTime, it is the first implementation of mobile video chat that actually works. No let me correct that: it doesn’t merely “work”, it works really, really well! So long as you have a high-speed Internet connection over WiFi the video is crisp and clean. In a number of extended conversations using the new service, I had no issue with latency. In typical Apple fashion everything just worked the way it was intended to work. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that the service is integrated with the iPhone’s address book; there is no separate app to launch. There is no need to create an account or log into a service. When you want to make a FaceTime call you simply tap the FaceTime button, and the “call” is initiated. Or, if you are on a standard call with someone and want to turn it into a FaceTime “call”, you simply tap the FaceTime button and… bam… you are in a video call. Even better, at the point when you convert to a FaceTime call you stop burning cell minutes. The FaceTime “call” costs you nothing. It is wildly simple, it’s built into the core of the iPhone’s functionality, and it is simple to use.

But there is something else going on here.

When I was on FaceTime with Larry, I could not help but be struck by how clear the AUDIO was. It was as good a call quality as anything I have heard. In my brief experience with FaceTime it is clear that Apple’s implementation of VOiP initiates calls more quickly and gives greater clarity than I’ve ever experienced with Skype. Don’t believe me? Try using both services back to back, and you’ll see the difference within a few seconds. And that’s just speaking in terms of the audio portion of the FaceTime experience.

Travis asked me on Twitter yesterday if I saw myself using FaceTime more than I had expected. I would now, since I had actually tried it. Let me come clean and note that prior to getting my iPhone 4, I called FaceTime a “gimmick”. I replied that I could see myself using FaceTime far more than I expected to, but I do not expect to use it more because of the video portion of the service. I expect to use it more because it makes awesome VOiP calls. The cell reception in my house is awful. The WiFi is super fast. There is no doubt in my mind that if I am talking to a friend who has an iPhone 4, I will switch over to FaceTime (that is assuming s/he is also in a WiFi network, of course). The switch mid-call would increase the clarity 100 fold , and stop using AT&T’s network. Separate and apart from the video calling, it would be a better call. And that’s the key issue here.

And it got me thinking– what if I could disable the video portion of FaceTime and simply use it for VOiP calls? The quality is great and it costs nothing. What if I could simply use the service to create a clean and clear connection in order to have a conversation with someone else, iPhone to iPhone over WiFi without ever having to deal with AT&T? Yes, I know that FaceTime is currently limited to iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 “calls”,  but no doubt that will change. In fact Jobs may well have already alluded to that fact when he introduced the service.

I have no doubt people are quickly going to want to use FaceTime without the video going so that they won’t be seen in their skivvy’s. This point was driven home to me this morning when I tried to FaceTime a friend who shall go nameless (**cough cough** Judie **cough cough**), after which she emailed saying  “dude – my hair is crazy and i have my pjs on still – no facetime!“. The video portion of FaceTime is nice, but the VOiP audo portion is really the standout feature that is setting the stage from something much much bigger.

But that is not the only reason people will be clamoring for the ability to turn off the video. People will want “FaceTime minus the Face” simply to get the higher quality audio. They’ll want “FaceTime minus the Face” because it is the simplest and best VOiP call ever. They’ll want “FaceTime minus the Face” because without much fanfare (and a slight of hand that has people focussed on the video when the real story is the audio) Apple has jumped into the VOiP market with a new service that integrates VOiP into the iPhone as a core functionality. They’ll want “FaceTime minus the Face”, and something tells me that this has been Apple’s plan all along.

Yes, people are going to use FaceTime for more than video calls. And think about what it will mean when you can turn off the video portion of FaceTime and just use “iFace”.

Apple is suddenly in direct competition with Skype, and they have created a way for you to entirely bypass AT&T when you have WiFi. By focusing on the service as a VIDEO CALL SERVICE Apple has avoided giving AT&T the opportunity to cry “Foul!”

I really think that is what is going on here. The video portion is cool, but more than anything it is there to keep AT&T and Skype from feeling totally infringed upon… For now.

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.