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iPhone 4 Review: 2 - the Phone & FaceTime

Calls without the carrier: FaceTime

Despite its fancy hardware, the core feature that is getting people into the Apple Store for iPhone 4 is FaceTime. It works great, but requires a WiFi connection. The reason: it delivers a good picture and good audio, which demand high bandwidth and low latency. No 3G network will currently deliver that to a population of millions of users, and certainly not cost effectively.

Alternative voice chat services (including both 3GPP mobile video chat on Nokia phones, or VoIP services like Fring that can be installed on one of the relatively few other US phones with a front facing camera, such as the HTC Sprint EVO 4G) trade off call quality for being able to make video calls anywhere. However, the iPhone's heavy dependance on AT&T in the US, and the costs that would be involved in placing regular video chats over the no longer unlimited contracts available, simply make aiming for a WiFi-only deployment the only step that could possibly launch the new service adequately for iPhone users.

Making a FaceTime call requires WiFi, but it also requires mobile service. Prior to activating my iPhone 4, there was no possible way to initiate a FaceTime connection. In Apple's documentation, it also notes that there's no way to start a FaceTime call without disclosing your phone number to the other party. Clearly, the phone network is being used to set up the call, even when you start a call directly from Contacts.

This will eventually change, as there's no way Apple can not add this killer feature to both the upcoming iPod touch 4 and to the company's iChat AV product on the Mac, particularly given the company's openness in working to get other mobile makers in on the same standards-based protocol for video chats. For now however, setting up a FaceTime conversation depends upon the mobile phone network, meaning you can not use the feature in places where you have WiFi but no cellular service. That's pretty disappointing given how easy it is to find holes in AT&T's service.

(Correction: after its initial connection, iPhone 4 FaceTime doesn't need a mobile signal to work)

Using FaceTime

The upside is that you don't really need good cellular service; you just need to be able to start a call. In many cases, bad AT&T service isn't a problem of zero service, it's just that you can't always reliably maintain a call as you move around in the troublesome spots between buildings or cellular tower shadows. If you try to make a FaceTime call and have no cellular signal at all, it will ring and ring (with that awful high pitch chirping from iChat) but never show up on the other end, not even as a missed call.

FaceTime picture quality is quite good, even when using less than ideal WiFi service (we ran tests while one side was on a hotel's free WiFi service). Audio can be muted using a button on the FaceTime display, and video can be paused (and will be paused) whenever you hit the Home button and visit another app. While you're away from the video call, you get the red "call in progress" bar across the top of the screen and your audio connection is maintained. Once you return to the FaceTime call, your video stream takes off from where you left.

This video pause not only prevents you from inadvertently maintaining a video link while you're not aware (there's no "now recording" green indicator light like the Mac iSight cameras), but also keeps your phone responsive while you do some other task, as it isn't having to handle video in the background. On the other end, there's no way to "share your desktop" like iChat, to show someone on the other end what you're doing on the screen (such reviewing your emails, or a tutorial for your mom on how to change settings on her phone) nor can you share a video feed of your photos or documents or anything like that. There's always FaceTime 2. And of course, you can also send documents via email or MMS to the recipient during your call.

You can also switch between the front facing VGA camera, which delivers a good-enough picture of you, and activate the rear facing camera to show off landscapes or crowds or your baby's footsteps to the caller on other end. The picture quality delivered by both cameras over FaceTime is about the same, even though the rear camera captures very high quality photos and full motion 30fps 720p HD video on its own.

Why Apple is opening FaceTime

FaceTime is so good that Apple's stated intention to open the specification up to other device makers appears surprising at first blush, especially to those stuck in the 90s mindset that open standards can't work and that proprietary control over software is the only way to make money. The reality however, is that Apple not only needs to get other makers to add support for FaceTime in order for its users to have people to video chat with, but also that if Apple didn't share its technology contributions (added to the existing IETF standards FaceTime is based upon), the rest of the world would likely stumble upon another one, which would likely be inferior or proprietary or both.

It might also be surprising that Apple isn't simply licensing its FaceTime technology to other makers as its own proprietary technology. The problem with introducing new proprietary software standards and trying to propagate them is that even if the vendor is successful (and that's not a given in a competitive landscape), it ends up owning a mess, and unable to freely compete as a vendor of that technology.

Microsoft discovered this reality with Windows, and is now unable to enter the hardware PC market. It again discovered this with Windows Mobile and again with PlaysForSure. When it introduced the Zune, it destroyed PlaysForSure. The company's new KIN phones are clearly hobbled both by being incompatible with and by competing against Windows Phone 7 and its Windows Mobile 6.x offerings.

A proprietary FaceTime system, licensed by Apple, would convert the company into the same early 90s beast that tried to license its Mac OS to cloners while competing against them with its own Macintosh hardware. That didn't work out. It would also put Apple in the position of Adobe and its Flash platform, which tries to bridge various computing platforms with a common denominator that can't do a good job of being both specialized/optimized and at the same time general purpose/good enough. The same kinds of problems haunt the future of the proprietary Skype protocol, and greatly limited Sun's Java on the desktop and JavaME on mobile devices.

The best way for Apple to compete as a hardware maker and as a mobile platform vendor is to freely offer FaceTime as an open standard just like those in place for the web (HTML5 and related technologies). By making the specification openly available, Apple can continue to work to sell the best implementation of FaceTime software and the best hardware for using it, and yet still work with partners who support it and competitors who bring compatible versions to market. That will also help prevent a rival, proprietary specification from gaining ground, creating a standards war where everyone (including Apple's customers) loses.

FaceTime is great new application of iPhone 4's new camera hardware, but it's not the only one. The next segment, part 3, will look at phone's new cameras and and how they perform both as still and video capture devices.