With its new front-facing camera, the iPhone 4 brings videoconferencing to the masses. The idea is compelling. Those heartrending, fancy demo videos of FaceTime, Apple's application that goes with that camera, make it look like something out of a sci-fi movie. And you know what? It feels like that.
It's a thrill to talk with each other with video on a cellphone. Some of us here at DVICE had a delightful time using it, talking, mugging, spinning around, making each other dizzy, giving ourselves tours of our various offices over video, and generally having a ball.
But after we'd used it for about a half-hour, we started noticing, hey wait a minute, the quality of this video sucks. Conversing with two-way video over the fastest possible wireless N networks on both sides, the video looked like it was extremely low resolution (for you video aficionados it's around 320 x 240 pixels at 10 frames per second at most). Its pixilated, jerky quality reminded us of the early days of YouTube or maybe even earlier than that, to the postage stamp digital video of the 1990s.
Even so, it still gave us a look at each other, a feel for the environment in which each of us works and lives, and it carried with it a novelty that goes way beyond the stationary webcam. We could walk around, quickly show each other things with the rear facing camera, and experience each other's lives in a way that was unusual for us far-flung writers. It made us think about the potential of such technology.
For it to succeed, at first there needs to be a huge network effect. Look back at the people who owned fax machines in the late 70s — they had limited use. But 10 years later, when the critical mass was reached with millions of fax machines, the value of each individual machine skyrocketed.
The same thing might happen with videoconferencing on cellphones. And if it's going to make it big, that critical mass might have gotten a whole lot closer to us in just one day — this day, the day the iPhone 4 was launched. If any company can help a product or service reach critical mass, it's Apple. And Apple's easy-to-use FaceTime software will probably lead the way.