Videocalling has been a sci-fi staple for decades. From 2001 to Back to the Future people chatting face-to-face from great distances was a way of saying "Hey, look, it's the future!" So does Facetime mean we're in the future?
FaceTime is Apple's stab at making videocalling a reality. They're certainly not the first: European and Asian phones have been able to do this for years, and the HTC Evo can do it quite handily. And laptops with built in or aftermarket webcams have done it for ages. But Apple is pushing it hard at the mainstream with the iPhone 4.
Making a call on FaceTime is very cool, at first. You see who you're talking to! You talk about what you are doing, that being using a videocalling system built right into a phone. How cool! You can do neat things like flick the little thumbnail of yourself from corner to corner and flip between the front and back cameras. It's just neat.
But then, once you have fiddled with it and both acknowledged how neat it is, once you have showed off your surroundings, once you move onto a conversation about something other than FaceTime, things get a little weird.
Because what are you supposed to be looking at? What should you be showing? You're used to talking on a phone and pacing around, skimming an email, doing something else at the same time. But with this, you can't. You just hold your phone out in front of you, awkwardly, and look at the other person looking back at you, also awkwardly. And you wonder, why are we doing this?
So really, FaceTime is great if you actually have something you want to show someone, like a new outfit or your new house or your kid. But if you're just calling to shoot the breeze? It's...awkward.
Which is why it's so annoying that it's a Wi-Fi-only feature—chances are much better that I'll want to show someone something when I'm away from home and my Wi-Fi network. I can't call my girlfriend and get her to approve a shirt I'm trying on at a store. I can't call my buddies and show off a gigantic cheeseburger I'm about to eat at a restaurant. I can't call my parents and show them the landmark I'm standing in front of on vacation.
So it leaves me wondering when I'll ever use it, after today, when it's fun to just call other people who are new iPhone 4 owners to marvel at our collective new trick. Really, if FaceTime is from the future, it's from a pretty insignificant part of it. Bring on the hovercars!
An alternative take
Hi, Brian Lam here. When I read Adam's piece, I felt a little sad. Because I spent a small but memorable part of the day—and not an insignificant part of the iPhone's battery—chatting on facetime with people who I haven't seen in awhile. And I enjoyed it more than I would with a laptop, even though you can technically do the same thing with a webcam. Let me try to explain.
The first time I did Facetime, it was to see my dogs who I haven't seen in awhile, which made me happy. Dogs can't speak on phones, so, seeing them sleeping under a blanket, where the phone could easily be maneuvered. After talking to Adam, I spent a few minutes talking to Nick, who walked me around the office so I could say hi to people. Before dinner, I spent a few minutes seeing friends in NY while I leaned back on a couch. They showed me how their dog and cat where, and looked just like last time I saw them a few weeks ago. It made me remember how much I liked visiting the two. I told the wife that I hope she knew how much her husband loved her, and he made some crass movements with his mouth, which was gross, but mostly funny.
I am thinking this: why's this worth 5 paragraphs when laptops can do the same thing? I guess I would say that laptops feel more and more like formal devices. Things for meetings, and sitting at desks. And that's the thing. It's a little bit different from computers chat, because you can lean back on the couch and there are no windows to distract you, it is far more portable and you can switch to the front camera to show people what you are looking at, eating, cooking, reading, watching, doing, with very little issue other than the fact that you are required to be on WiFi.
So I wrote Adam. I told him that I didn't think the piece he wrote adequately covered the subtleties of the value of facetime (or any mobile face to face chat), and that it kind of hurt my feelings he could only describe our connection as awkward, half kidding. Adam's right, we had a few moments where we didn't know what to do but to look at each other. But sometimes you want to stare into the big beautiful brown eyes of one of your writers. What's so awkward about that? I thought we had a connection, especially after adam said, "It's good to see you, man." He didn't write back.
Instead, while I was at dinner, I received a facetime request as I was staring down into my half eaten plate, from Adam, and his wonderful girlfriend Sarah. (I happened to be on a wifi network, luckily.) It was loud, and I couldn't hear anything, and I couldn't tell if they could hear me. But they were happy and so was I. Seeing people smile, and wave, without being to hear what they were saying, was kind of the point.
Inevitably, if you're doing facetime with people you care about, you're just willing to spend some time just looking at them. Just seeing them. One day, it would be nice if all these formats were standardized across skype, ichat, xbox, other mobiles, whatever. Until then, the portability and mega mainstreamness of the iPhone mean that it'll probably be a worthwhile way for me to see people I like, across the globe. But a even if a webcam will do, it won't do it as nicely.
P.S. The front camera's angle requires you to not get too close to it, lest you give yourself a bit of a fish eye effect. Not the most flattering angle, but something you can definitely play around with to overcome.