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Google, Microsoft fight over standards to rival Apple's FaceTime

Almost two years after Apple introduced FaceTime, Google and Microsoft are battling to introduce their own video chat acquisitions as new Internet web standards, while FaceTime remains proprietary to Apple.

FaceTime, two years later

Apple's Steve Jobs first introduced FaceTime video conferencing in June 2010 at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference as a key new feature of iPhone 4, noting at the time that Apple intended to release the technology as an open specification that other mobile vendors could license to create compatible video conferencing clients.

The company subsequently added FaceTime support to its new camera-bearing iPod touch released that September, announced that FaceTime was coming to the Mac in October (delivering it in February) and brought FaceTime to the new iPad 2 the next spring. FaceTime became so central to Apple's marketing that the company even began calling its iOS and Mac webcams "FaceTime cameras."

Now two years old, Apple's FaceTime feature has never become an openly published standard as Jobs promised it would be. While the technology is based upon a series of open standards, interoperability with third party implementations is not currently possible, for reasons described below.

Google and Microsoft are now wrangling to position two different video conferencing standards (each based on acquired video chat technologies) as open specifications with the potential to rival FaceTime. Google's is named WebRTC, while Microsoft just submitted a proposal named CU-RTC-Web.

Open standards in Apple's proprietary FaceTime

Apple has promoted the fact that it used a series of open protocols to create FaceTime: it incorporates the International Standard Organization's MPEG AAC and H.264 audio and video codecs; support for the IETF's (Internet Engineering Task Force) SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) for call setup; its RTP (Real-time Transport Protocol) and SRTP (Secure RTP) for encrypted video delivery; and its ICE (Interactive Connectivity Establishment), TURN (Traversal Using Relays around NAT) and STUN (Session Traversal Utilities for NAT) for handling firewalls and NAT (Network Address Translation, which commonly used in home routers to create private IP addresses but which creates a hurdle for video chat clients).

Apple FaceTime

Despite using Internet standards to develop FaceTime, however, the detailed inner workings of the feature have never been published, neither as a privately licensed technology nor as an open standard (with or without associated licensing fees).

Individuals examining the communications FaceTime uses have learned that, among other things, the system uses Apple's own unique security system for user authentication rather than relying upon SIP's built in features.

Before ever starting a videoconferencing session, Apple checks to see if the client device can prove itself as legitimate. If it can't, it gets disconnected. Apple's FaceTime client apps are hardwired to Apple's FaceTime accounts, similar to how Google's Gmail app is optimized to only work with one type of email account: Google's.

Apple's FaceTime authentication relies upon on a client-side security key cryptographically signed by Apple, making it as impossible to create an unauthorized third party FaceTime client as it would be to create a third party App Store accessible to other iPhone users (or to force Gmail to access email directly from Microsoft's Exchange Server).

Apple's "walled garden" has walls, but it's also a garden.

In addition to having secret technological elements, FaceTime is also tied into Apple's Push Notification Server infrastructure, meaning that calls between FaceTime clients have to interact with the company's servers in order to contact other FaceTime users. In part, this is required to bridge the gap between telephone networks and Internet devices, something that existing video-telephony or PC-based video chat systems never really attempted.

As a result, FaceTime's proprietary, centralized infrastructure is conceptually similar to the instant messaging services offered by AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo, as opposed to an entirely open network like Internet email, where any vendor can set up servers that can deliver messages to other servers using established, documented protocol specifications, with no intermediary governing the entire system.

The downside to this design is that FaceTime users can't video chat with Android or Windows PC users, because third parties can't reverse engineer their own FaceTime-compatible clients, just as Android developers can't create an unauthorized client to pose questions to Siri. In both cases, Apple's servers demand security credentials and refuse connections if they aren't provided.

The upside is that FaceTime users can't be inundated with spam video-call requests or robo-calls, spoofed incoming call requests pretending to be another party, or have their calls intercepted by spies, the same way that email spam, spoofs and snooping are commonplace and difficult to guard against.

Open to whom?

Apple could certainly license FaceTime to other vendors, just as it currently licenses its proprietary, securely authenticated software protocols such as AirPlay (for a fee) or as it provides secure, encrypted access to app signatures for third party developers (as cheaply as free). So far, Apple has demonstrated no public interest in doing this (apart from Job's original promise that it eventually would).

In order to make FaceTime freely open as an interoperable technology standard, the same way Messages on iOS or OS X (née iChat) interoperates with any XMPP instant messaging system (such as Google Talk, Facebook, any other Jabber IM server), Apple would have to relax its authentication system to allow users to sign into and authenticate with other videoconferencing providers. This would open Pandora's Box to the spam market, just like email.

Currently, there are no real alternative video conferencing services that work similar enough to FaceTime that Apple could allow its users to connect with (certainly in part because portions of FaceTime are still a secret). But there are also far fewer potential vendors for Apple to work with than there were in 2010 when Jobs announced his plans to open FaceTime.

Since Apple's late 2010 release of FaceTime, the collapse of RIM, Palm, Nokia and Windows Mobile has dramatically shifted the mobile playing field, leaving Apple with no other significant mobile vendor to license its Internet-standards based FaceTime protocol to apart from Google's Android or (charitably) Microsoft's Windows Phone, both of which are now pursing their own competitive video chat systems.

On page 2 of 3: Microsoft's Skype, Google offers WebRTC as a FaceTime alternative