Did IPhone's FaceTime Just Overcome 45 Years of Video-Phone Indifference?

For over 45 years, most Americans seemed underwhelmed by the prospects of being able to see the person they were speaking to on the phone. The first practical and commercially viable "Picturephone" from AT&T appeared at the New York World's Fair in 1964. And for all intents and purposes, no one really cared.

Through many iterations and false starts, a number of vendors have tried to sell the idea of visual person-to-person calling decade after decade. Most recently, I saw the scheme show up on a home shopping channel targeted to seniors. Here is how you can keep up with the grandkids, the sentimental pitch goes. Curiously, that is precisely how Apple is framing the appeal of its FaceTime feature on the new iPhone 4. In fact, in the extended spot that climbed to number 2 on the Visible Measures viral video chart for last week, Apple raises the stakes even higher. Instead of just grandparents waving at the kids, we even get a pregnant wife vid-phoning her ultrasound session to a distant solider husband.

For a company that is so dedicated to brand coolness, this is an uncharacteristic use of unbridled sentimentality. And why the full-court press into smarmy product rationale? Well, Apple has to be smart enough to know that there have been decades of cultural headwinds against the adoption of video calls.

Generally, once people thought twice about the reality of video calling, they realized that phoning is best left as a low-res activity. Most of us take full advantage of the fact that the person on the other end of the phone line can't see us. How many emails do most of us read while on the phone with Mom? C'mon, fess up. Do you want to break her heart and let you see what a crappy kid you really are? No.

For the same reason that many young people prefer texting over calling -- to maintain more control of the conversation -- most of us have resisted the idea of video calling. It is hard enough to get a motor-mouth off of the phone without also having to be guarded about your eye-rolls and grimaces.

The problem is that most attempts to sell video-calling seemed to imply that the format would revolutionize all phone calling. Knowing this, Apple is reconstructing the video calling use case as occasion-based rather than mandatory. But it is also speaking to a generation that has already gotten accustomed to video chat on the Web and, to a lesser degree, video teleconferencing in business. Which makes one wonder if, after 45 years of false starts, Apple has the coolness and the formula right for making video calling a reality.

Well, maybe. Because there are still too few iPhone 4s in the wild for practical person-to-person testing, Apple is offering a free FaceTime trial call with one of its own live facilitators. I was impressed by the ease with which all of this occurred. I called in and my handler verified I was calling over WiFi (required for Facetime) and that I was the owner of the phone. And then, bam, a smiling cubicle dweller from Apple is walking me through the features.

All of the usual awkwardness of Web chatting applies here. Video calling is a more self-conscious experience. Much like waving when a video camera is on to acknowledge that it is recording motion, one feels obliged to emote with facial expression. And like a Webcam experience, you tend to gaze into your own image rather than the camera, so there isn't direct eye-to-eye contact. My Apple rep seemed trained to compensate, so he was looking at me but I looked as if I were contemplating my navel, literally.

In addition to ease of use and a new comfort with video chatting generally, video calling may be ready for prime time because video itself is now such an unexceptional and expected mode of communication. Video is to this era what the photograph was to the last century. The Flip video camera, the phone cam and now Facetime are allowing the casual recording of more and more of our lives. Video is a reflex.

I used to ask my text-mad daughter to explain to me why she doesn't just call the people she was messaging so feverishly. She explained to me that she didn't want to "get stuck on a call" with someone. The phone is now offering us four tiers of intimacy to choose in our exchanges with people: text, voice, still image and video. If Apple stays smart about selling video calling as a special, uniquely intimate exchange, then it may have cracked the code... again.

4 comments about "Did IPhone's FaceTime Just Overcome 45 Years of Video-Phone Indifference?".
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  1. Allan Caplan from Caplan Consulting, July 6, 2010 at 3:37 p.m.

    HEY, what about the EVO 4G by HTC, sold by Sprint,
    Does the same thing. just faster, cheaper, and o'yes,
    it's not on ATT.

  2. Mike Patterson from WIP, Inc., July 6, 2010 at 5:12 p.m.

    I'm still seriously doubting the viability of pure video calls from a consumer perspective. One instance where they may come in handy however: directions! You're talking to a person who's giving you directions, they been to a place before and you haven't...flip the phone over and show them where you are and they can guide you through...brilliant huh?!

  3. Edward Hunter from Loop Analytics, July 7, 2010 at 9:46 a.m.

    I think the biggest point to keep in mind is that people demand control over when and where they are seen. My fiance won't leave the house without her rituals, there is little chance she'll appear on camera in any sort of ad-hoc way.

    Facetime is neat, and who knows, perhaps it will crack the market open for face to face communications but it's doubtful.

    Web cams have been around for years - considering you have to be on a wireless network to use Facetime this isn't all that novel of a feature. Communications have evolved in reverse as the article points out with many choosing to revert to text from voice. We'll see if wrapping the Apple cool around it can make an impact.

  4. Eric Matisoff from Razorfish, July 7, 2010 at 9:47 a.m.

    @Mike - that would be great if you have WiFi in your car, but otherwise, Apple won't let you do it. However, as Allan mentioned, I believe this could be done with the Evo using Skype.

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