FaceTime: VoIP Product of the Year

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December 30, 2010

in iphone, Skype + VoIP, VoIP

I’ve been meaning to write a few blogs for awhile. However, this one can’t wait. With the year running out… the question is. WHAT WAS THE VOIP PRODUCT OF THE YEAR? In a year 2010 where there have been real advances in mobile, particularly video calling (FaceTime, Tango, Viber and even Skype Mobile Video and products like TextFree which some may chime in and say… that’s not VoIP at all.

And the winner is! FACETIME on the iPhone4. Many will say it remains flawed and a work in progress. It only works on WiFi and is limited to iPhone4 and iPod Touch 4th Gen and now a few Mac’s that have installed FaceTime beta. So let’s look first at some of the other entrants. Tango, Viber, TextFree and never forget the last minute Skype3.0 for iPhone.

Tango unlike Facetime already goes cross platforms. You can tango on Android and between iPhone’s and Androids. You can also use it over 3G. The quality is quite good. Also renders well as it is locked to a small screen – there’s no attempt to scale it to the large screen. Tango has a relatively easy registration system. You provide an email. Tango will then start building a tango contact list. Tango does have some challenges. It’s not built in so you have to download it. You also have to “TURN” notifications on. When notifications are OFF no one can call you. Still it’s a great option for families that want to use video on the move and outside the WiFi zones. Tango also provides a voice only option – which may be more suited to some environments.

Viber: Viber is more traditional. It’s the Skype model being applied all over again to the mobile. It copies and probably infringes on Phonegnome patents. Still no matter. You visit the app store, add Viber and you instantly find out how many of your friends you can Viber or talk to. This is because Viber uses your mobile phone number to create a SIP registry. So Viber can instantly identify all other registered users that are in your contact list. It’s more accurate than emails. Viber is the best execution of “no need to register” and auto account creation I know of on the iPhone. When you install it is very clear that you need the notifications to be on (and double checks this) to insure that Viber will always work in the background. Other than the need to DOWNLOAD Viber most closely duplicates the FaceTime call setup approach. It needs the least to get it running and it doesn’t run out your battery when running in the background. The downside is – Viber does nothing new with profiles, or change the traditional call approach in any way. Viber does another nice thing. Each time a friend of mine downloads and installs Viber I get a notification that “name” is now on Viber. Of note I have more contacts on Viber than on Tango now… despite the splash that Tango launched with.

Viber is worth looking at just for how it handles notification and designed to spread. I think many more “Apps” will go the Viber way. Still the problem for Viber is…. FaceTime. FaceTime is built into the device. FaceTime can match Vibers features anytime.  Viber works anywhere while FaceTime is Video only and not voice only!  The reality is Tango could also learn some UI tricks from Viber.

TextFree: Why? Aren’t there lots of these? Yes and it’s worth considering. TextFree is providing a SMS program for the US. I use it all the time from India. Keeps my SMS costs to zero. Yes it means I use another number which they provide free! That’s all it was at first. Then they added in a VoIP element. I still don’t use that. I just like the savings of 50 cents a text message. My family can continue unlimited texting to me… and this provides the free right of response when out of the country whenever I can find a hotspot. That’s a good deal. There are a number of these services in the App store. I just happened to start using this one. It proves to me.. that the mobile may be multi-modal but one thing on the screen at a time works. Thus three separate programs may work better, or be more appropriate.  I often transfer seamlessly from Facetime to TextFree to Skype, Yahoo etc. Depending on who it is. It’s still free when there’s a hotspot!

Skype3.0 for iPhone4
I find it almost hard to bring in the goliath of VoIP products. This year I’ve written many times about how FaceTime threatens Skype’s business model. See this collection of posts. Yet today just before the bell rings on 2010 Skype launches video calling on the iPhone. It’s probably worth a longer post. Still here’s the guts.

  • Skype video for iPhone will enable you to Video call on 3G or WiFi from your iPhone4.
  • The quality is 1/2 FaceTime. It’s more grainy. When blown up to full screen on a PC it isn’t the Skype quality we are used to. Mobile to Mobile it’s fine. Facetime Mobile to FaceTime Mac Beta remains better.
  • Screensharing is activated – however I couldn’t read this blog post on my iPhone screen when shared. There’s no zoom feature. I’ll have to check the iPad on this score. It may be better.
  • When Skype runs in the background your iPhone battery life quickly runs down. No changes to this behavior. Which puts a huge restriction on when and how one uses it.
  • Andy Abramson notes compatibility across Skype. Jim Courtney has a complete features review.
  • Todd Carruthers asks is Facetime is now dead. I think not.

I’ve been an irregular blogger recently. There’s too much hype and too little innovation out there. In my view FaceTime is important because:

  1. FaceTime recognized that you no longer needed to create an account to make calls. All the details were already in your phone. We were doing the same thing with Phweet by using Twitter. There we borrowed the signaling and the Identity.  The opportunity for FaceTime is to use the same approach and then optionally provide different profiles.  FaceTime is agnostic to profiles and numbers and yet could build an important service around profiles and identities in the future.
  2. It leverages a “notification” server and thus takes call signaling out and away from the mobile operators. There’s no real difference in Apple’s notification approach than an SMS. When phones become always on anyone can potentially manage or utilize a signaling / notification system. Fact is Google and Nokia are following Apple’s lead in this direction.
  3. Apple is also moving this same notification model to work with any endpoint. Eg FaceTimeBeta on Mac. Once installed you don’t have to boot it.. it need not be running. It will present a call. Similar things are happening in the world of SIM cards and virtual SIMs. Whether for the toaster or the tree and irrigation system. They need to become part of the network. Wake up your house!
  4. FaceTime is pure video right now. From a teaching training point that’s powerful. I’ve had many sessions now where FaceTime generates multiple users at each end all talking. Yes they skew to family although with familiarity they will move more and more into the workplace. It’s resulted in other members buying iPhones! Video on the mobile can be a very different experience to video on the desktop. It’s more spontaneous, more free and fast moving. It brings in more sharing opportunities etc. It’s also another communications mode. It’s also not appropriate everywhere.
  5. It’s built into the phone. I certainly hope they speed up the interconnect and share their open standards. However, nothing beats building it into the phone for empowering the user. Right now managing access is still on the horizon. Yet Skype’s had this problem from the start. How many let anyone rather than just buddies call for example? FaceTime will easily address this challenge – eg based on your address book. In this regard, Skype’s model of friending was great for a PC world – while that now encumbers it’s migration to mobile. It creates friction where there doesn’t need to be any. Voice/Video is just something that is built in. It is part of an easy escalation. The phone core can probably manage this best still.

As with any new car of the year, or product – people are still kicking the tires. I’ll save for another post how FaceTime could continue “innovating” in ways to re-frame how we talk and communicate. There’s still lots wrong with telephony – much of which VoIP was supposed to help address. Most products continue in the old paradigm rather than creating something really new. FaceTime reinvented mobile video. Nokia had it for years and it was offered with a few mobile carriers around the world. Yet it never really worked. It was too complicated to set up and execute. That’s the final lesson. FaceTime makes video calling easier than Skype. For that alone it should win.

  • Hi,
    This is a member of the Viber Development Team! 🙂
    Thanks for putting Viber on your list. we are very happy that so many people worldwide are interested in our application.

    I would just like to add that Viber will soon be available also on other devices, and not only iPhone. the next one is Android, and it will happen in February-March. Viber will also allow to send Text Messages very soon.

    If you have any question about Viber – please feel free to ask.

    Thank you, and Happy New Year!
    the Viber Team.

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