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iPhone FaceTime - Why It Just Might Work

June 7, 2010

In case you don't already know, Apple announced the newest iPhone today at their annual Wordwide Developer Conference (WWDC). I'm not going to delve into all the great new features here (there are plenty of other places to go for the full run-down), but one of the features that seems to be consistently generating a lot of chat on Reddit is the new video chat (a.k.a. FaceTime) feature.

Comments are mostly centering around two things: 1) that it's a shame it only works on WiFi, and 2) that this has already "been around, especially in Asia and Europe, for 5+ years". I'm not going to really address point one, because I think we all know that AT&T and their ridiculously bad coverage are to blame for it, and there's nothing Apple can probably do about it at this point. But let's discuss point two, shall we?

I find it interesting that folks constantly bring up the "so-and-so already did it" argument with Apple. Apple is very rarely the first folks to the party when it comes to new technology. Take their iconic MP3 player, the iPod. They didn't invent music players. They didn't even invent the hard drive MP3 player (in fact, I had one years before the iPod came out from a little company called Creative). But they took what was there, and they polished it, and they approached it from a new direction. They made the MP3 player more than just a "geeky gadget" — they made it cool. And they also had the incredible foresight to realize that their new cool gadget would really benefit from a marketplace for music; this has been, arguably, one of the best decisions Apple ever made, even paving the way for the iPhone's App Store, and now the iBooks book store.

I think that the main problem here is the disconnect between the general public and the tech-savvy elite. For a long, long time, the tech-savvy of the world (and I count myself among this group) were used to setting the stage for new technology based in large part on technical specification. It didn't matter to us if the computer looked good, or if the application had a marketing campaign — we just made logical choices based on the specs. Which had a faster processor, which had more memory, which handled more filetypes, which had the features that we wanted, even which was open-source. But Apple changes that game completely around. They have the amazing ability to use marketing and design to sell the general public on things that have been around forever, but have remained in the hands of those elite. My mother (who loves her iPhone) isn't interested in the processor, or the memory, or even the resolution of the display; she loves to be able to get her email wherever she is. It's the first phone she's ever had that she can actually send text messages. Not that her previous phones lacked the capability! Rather, the iPhone is the first phone that has made it effortless.

And I think with video calling, that mainstream appeal is more important than ever. In fact, it's almost downright ridiculous that there are actually folks on Reddit who don't see that. The fact that your Nokia from 3 years ago has a video chat feature is completely and utterly meaningless if you have no one else to call besides your one other geek friend who was capable of understanding how that phone worked in the first place. Apple has the sheer numbers to make this work. In the next year or two, they will ship millions and millions of units (iPhone 4, as well as the inevitable new versions of the iPod Touch and iPad) capable of making video calls. And it's as simple to use as pressing a button when you're already on a call. I also fully expect an announcement at some point with a new version of iChat that supports video calls between PCs and mobile devices that are Face Time capable.

And it's more than just a numbers game. If you've watched the Apple iPhone 4 announcement video, you're keenly aware that they've already begun selling the general public on why they need video chat in their lives. What do you mean you're on a business trip and you can't see your baby daughter's face? What do you mean grandma and grandpa can't keep up with the family? The Apple marketing machine has already ramped up, and within a year folks everywhere will wonder how they ever lived without this fundamental piece of their lives -- or they'll be putting it at the top of their list for Christmas.

In short, Apple may not be pioneers of technology specifications, which may not impress geeks making phone choices based largely on processing speed and open-source tech, but they are the kings of polish and mainstream. If anyone can pull off video calling, it's them.

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