Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Put the iPhone down, and step away from the Kool Aid dispenser

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Apple and all it has achieved in design and market creation, as well as the precipitous rise in its market cap, which The Dear Leader recently described as "surreal." I have never encountered a CEO of any company who didn't believe (at least in public) that his/her company was undervalued, so this remark in itself is surreal and has a vague whiff of short-bait about it.

Another thing I find increasingly surreal is how, every time Mr. Jobs speaks, otherwise intelligent people seem to suffer a rapid onset of cerebral paralysis. Last night, as I watched the euphoric Twitsteria flowing from the Jobstown compound, I saw a couple of comments along the lines of "Two deaf people signing to each other over the iPhone - Apple just leapfrogged everyone," and (my favorite), "Future - we are here."

The last time I checked, the future started about eight years ago. Here's a TV spot from the technologically ambitious, but commercially inept, 3 UK, from spring 2003. Video calling. It ain't pretty, and the brain-dead, bloke-ish inanity of it completely deflates the potential magic of the proposition, but there it is.

3 Mobile Video Calling

So, in theory, we've had this capability in Europe for the better part of a decade. I consider myself to be a keen observer of how real people use devices and interact with communications services, and I have *_NEVER_* seen anyone making a video call on a mobile handset out in the real world, ever. The far-from-overwhelming HTC Touch HD handset I got two years ago had a front-facing camera for video calling. I never used it, not even out of curiosity, because a) I knew it would suck and be very expensive over a 3G connection, and b) if I were using WiFi and desired a video chat with someone, I could use Skype on my netbook, which I almost always have with me. It is interesting that the highly impressive HTC Desire I now own has no front-facing camera, so it would appear that this is a feature which the Church of Android considers to be superfluous, at least for now.

However, Apple has an impressive track record when it comes to creating new markets and changing consumer behavior, so just because there is no demonstrable history of use cases for mobile video calling so far, doesn't mean that we can blithely assume this won't change. Perhaps the fact that Apple is limiting the service to WiFi for now, and the characteristic attention that the company gives to usability and elegance of interface, will drive adoption and protect it from the risk of disappointing consumer expectations. Then again, in my experience, the Apple faithful typically own more than one Apple product, so if they are in a place with WiFi coverage, there is a decent chance that they will have a MacBook or iPad in tow as well, either of which would offer a superior experience if video calling were required. As far as I can tell, FaceTime video calling works only between iPhone 4 devices (for now, though I expect that will change over time), so this could also be problematic for adoption depending on contract periods and upgrade cycles among one's iPhone social circle.

Don't get me wrong - the iPhone is an awesome device, and the promise of a (probably) satisfactory video calling experience over it is a nice-to-have feature. It's just that tired old telecom "pundits" like me have heard the George Jetson mobile video calling pitch for so long now, that when I hear people talking about "leap-frogging" and "living in the future," I feel tempted to call out the deprogrammers. I would like nothing more than for FaceTime to prove me wrong, but I just can't see it happening very quickly.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go wash my flying car.

1 comment:

Sammael99 said...

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