I've been waiting more than 5 years for video calling, video sharing, or video chatting to mature as a legit mobile service. With Apple's FaceTime, it is poised to go mainstream. The software is so easy to use, it is quickly going to become the defining feature of the iPhone 4.
Video chats via instant messaging or Skype clients have been around for a long time, though generally restricted to use on PCs. When Apple launched the iPad in January, it was with great disappointment that techies digested the Apple tablet's lack of front-facing camera and video chat capability. It seemed a natural fit. FaceTime turned out to be the "One More Thing" that Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced during his WWDC keynote on June 7. I can see why.
Now that I am home from my morning iPhone acquisition adventure, I've been setting up my iPhone and testing its features. FaceTime is, so far, my favorite by a wide margin. Here's how it works.
Make a voice call. As long as both you and your callee are using iPhones 4s and are connected to Wi-Fi hot spots, you'll see the option to convert the call to FaceTime. Once you press the FaceTime button, the application asks your call participant if they'll accept the chat. Once they accept, it connects you and turns on the user-facing camera.
Most of the screen displays your friend, colleague or loved one. You can see everything that their iPhone sees. There's a small thumbnail in the upper right corner of the screen so you can see what you look like to your friend. In the bottom right corner there's another button that lets you switch from the front-facing camera to the main camera. This makes it a little bit easier to share your surroundings with your buddy. When you're done, end the FaceTime chat and the call and chat conclude.
Apple hasn't yet explained exactly what's going on under the hood with FaceTime. For example, we don't know how the call is being handed off from cellular to Wi-Fi, if its using VoIP, etc.
The bottom line is, the technology doesn't matter. Why? Because it just works. FaceTime didn't drop the call during my tests, even during the cellular-to-WiFi conversion. The application opened quickly each time, provided good video and sound quality, and was so simple that every iPhone 4 user will be able to become a pro in about 5 seconds.
I hope Apple and its network partners are able to make FaceTime work on cellular networks sooner rather than later. The Wi-Fi limitation is a big one. Until then, people will happily be conducting video share sessions from their homes, offices, etc.
Apple's competitors (Qik, Fring, Skype) are going to have to ramp up their video share offerings quickly. FaceTime blows them all out of the water.