A front-facing iPhone camera means video calling, but it's also a sign of something bigger. Combined with other recent leaks, it means that Apple is bringing iChat to the iPhone. Everything about voice calling may be about to change.
iChat, You Chat
So, how does the appearance of a front-facing camera change standard voice calling? Let's connect the dots:
• Front-facing camera means video calling
• Leaks suggest video calling is part of overall iChat
• iChat software and new VOIP provisions in OS means voice chat, too (maybe even for older iPhones)
• iChat branding, arrival of iPad and new OS multitasking all suggest compatibility with desktop app and standard buddy lists
• iPhone-to-desktop compatibility means everybody talks to everybody, no special plans needed
As I've said before, voice calling and SMS are both just part of the data stream, and don't deserve special treatment. Now, when there's a well-designed unified iChat client presenting an alternative to traditional calling and messaging, those old systems will become inconveniences. If Apple manages to do this right, and that's still a big if, they will finally provide a more human way to communicate: Pick a person, and reach out. The "how"—whether you use text, voice or video—should be of less importance than the "who."
Why Is Video Chat So Hard?
Make no mistake, this is about software, not hardware. There have been front-facing cameras on 3G-capable phones for ages, and many a carrier has attempted to market video streaming—for a price. But if you recall AT&T had real-time Video Share, but it was only one-way, only worked with AT&T, and even then, required special phones and plans. In Europe, where two-way video calling was tried more broadly, many have already written it off on phones as a disappointment and a flop. The hardware is here, the network, in many respects, is here, but the smart way to bring it all together and make it work—that's what's been missing.
It's easy to say why individual initiatives don't work: Even text messaging didn't take off when people couldn't send messages to people on other carriers. One-way video is creepy, violating the unspoken agreement that if you get to see me, I need to see you too. And of course, video chat on computers, via strong broadband connections, can still be awful, so how do you guarantee vid quality on a network that can't even guarantee that calls won't drop?
Carriers and handset makers have up till now blamed high prices and lack of marketing support, though one Nokia exec mentioned that the whole pointing-a-phone-at-your-head-and-talking thing was awkward, and not very "flattering."
Apple has to face all of these obstacles as it takes its turn at bat, even if it is a company known for succeeding where others have failed, especially where human-friendly software engineering and design are concerned. But my guess is that they're not in this for the cellphone-based video chat.
Video Chat Is Just The Gateway
On the Mac, video chat is just one dish on the iChat menu, a menu that also contains instant text messages and voice chatting. (There's even screen sharing and other frills that may end up on a phone or pad near you.) I contend that while video chat is a neat thing to do, at least once, the existence of a front-facing camera suggests this whole lineup of features.
If we can grab our phones, pull up the buddy list we see on our computers, and engage in a video call, then why wouldn't we also be able to do a quick text chat? And if we can do both of those things, what's to stop us from just doing voice calling? And if I can voice call all my buddies—be they on their computers, on their iPads or on their phones—from my phone using an iChat client, I may never make a regular real phone call again.
It may sound like a fantasy, but Apple has already laid the groundwork for third parties to make this stuff happen, so why shouldn't they put it in their own flagship mobile iChat app?
If Apple Doesn't Do It, Skype Will
During the iPhone OS 4 unveiling, Steve Jobs made room for a Skype demo showing how the VOIP service could work in the background, receiving calls while you did other things on your phone (or, ostensibly, your iPad). Not only does this tell me that Skype is busy devising dramatic uses for iPhones that will completely workaround AT&T's voice calling, it also tells me that Apple condones it to the point of promoting it early and often. And speaking of AT&T, the carrier already allows VOIP over 3G. While that can currently be found in primitive form through Skype using Fring, it it really means that a new Skype iPhone client will not only run in the background of your iPhone, but will run regardless of what network you're on.
We're already excited about this, so what about that camera? Will Apple give Skype access to the camera? My sense is that it will either be tied exclusively to a very powerful iChat client, or it will be offered freely to developers. Apple wouldn't go to all the trouble to put a second camera in if they didn't think the thing would get mileage.
Let's face it, iChat may not be the perfect multi-protocol messaging app for the Mac, so there's a good chance it won't do amazing things for the iPhone. But if there's a healthy coop-etition between Apple's own development and the best developers in the desktop space—not just Skype and Fring but Adium and Cerulean and Meebo—then who's to say that soon, there won't be a handful of good options? You've heard me say that voice messaging and SMS charges are a scam—a great iChat client for the iPhone would soon render them a sham, too.
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