Will ‘Facetime’ on the iPhone 4G be the latest video-calling flop?

Will ‘Facetime’ on the iPhone 4G be the latest video-calling flop?

In many ways Apple’s newly unveiled iPhone 4G represents the current state-of-the-art in terms of what a mobile phone can be. At its recent launch in San Francisco, Steve Jobs saved news of his favourite iPhone 4G innovation until the end of his presentation. He called it ‘Facetime’, but the rest of us probably know it already as ‘video calling’.

Technology companies have been pushing video calling for at least the past six or seven years but it’s never really taken off. The big question is “why?” This article will suggest an answer and then pose a new question. Is Apple just the latest in a long line of James T Kirk wannabes that have failed to understand why people don’t like video calling?

Back in 2004 I was involved with a youth research study in the UK called R.O.A.R. (Right Of Admission Reserved) that ran a unique “placement & observation” exercise with Hutchinson 3G (known today simply as 3).

Hutchinson provided R.O.A.R with a batch of the latest 3G video-mobile handsets, all of them loaded with unlimited call credit. We gave these handsets to a group of twenty 16-24 year olds and let them keep the 3G phones for a two-week period. Then we just stood back and watched what happened.

What R.O.A.R. discovered was quite shocking and more than a little depressing for Hutchinson. Our young subjects were outraged by the poor network coverage and reception of the new phones and appalled by their short battery life.

My Nokia has a stand-by time of 2 weeks. This 3G phone barely lasts 2 minutes.” Male 15-24

They also seemed genuinely offended to be given a whizzy new gadget that couldn’t fulfil even the basic requirements of a normal mobile phone. One young guy told us:

“It’s pointless launching a phone that doesn’t work as a phone – you’d have to carry two handsets with you and have two contracts.” Male 15-24

After two weeks some of our young people angrily handed back their 3G phones and said they didn’t want the equipment in their sight ever again.

Looking back at this research it’s clear that, thanks to crap technology performance, video calling has so far failed to recover from the worst of all possible starts. But it’s probably fair to say that handset manufacturers have largely overcome these kinds of handset issues and we can safely expect the iPhone 4G to be a pleasure to live with.

However, there were other concerns raised by the R.O.A.R. study that lead one to question Steve Jobs’ enthusiasm for ‘Facetime’. The first concern is the breadth of the likely ‘Facetime’ user base – only people who own an iPhone 4G and use the same mobile network provider will be able to make video calls. As one young girl told us in 2004:

If your whole crowd of friends had [a 3G video phone] it would be wicked, but they don’t because it’s so new.” Female 15-24

The danger here is that the number of Facetime users in any person’s social graph will be so patchy that the service will simply fall off the radar due to lack of use. But other concerns about video calling were more fundamental and went right to the heart of the technology’s limitations. One young guy told us:

“My brother-in-law has 3G already so I was video-calling him. It’s funny, we normally get on really well, but those calls felt a bit awkward.” Male 15-24

People generally reported that video conversations tended to feel stilted and less fluid than normal voice-only calls. This could have been due to unfamiliarity with the technology that would probably subside with experience.

However, other evidence from the research suggested this wasn’t the case and that video-calling gave rise to many unintended consequences. Here’s what one young girl told us:

You can’t really use a video phone because the men are only looking at your chest.” Female 15-24

This problem gets right to the heart of social communication and reveals what geeky techno-engineers often fail to understand. Let’s fast forward to 2010.

Imagine being woken by your lovely new iPhone 4G after a heavy night out on the town. You squint bleary eyed casino online at the screen and discover your relatively new boyfriend is on the line and wants some quality ‘Facetime’ with you. It goes without saying that if he sees you in this state you’ll never get to walk up the aisle with him. But more to the point, you also seem to be sharing a bed with your naked ex-boy friend.

If you don’t accept his ‘Facetime’ request, your current boyfriend will be suspicious. If you do he’ll probably forget that you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards and want to know who the hairy arm belongs to at the edge of the video picture.

The unavoidable fact is this – video calling can cause more social problems than it actually resolves. People enjoy the voyeuristic potential of 3G video phones, but find being ‘viewed’ or ‘observed’ a quite uncomfortable and potentially risky experience.

In contrast we should consider the perennial popularity of good ol’ low-fi SMS. Although considered technologically basic, the core communication function of SMS is unlikely to be surpassed.

One of the most attractive things about texting is its “you can’t see me” advantage. Texting gives people an important element of privacy and control whilst making themselves available for communication at all times.

For instance, people still get incredibly excited and giggly when a text arrives. We often use SMS to flirt with minimum risk of embarrassment whilst sussing out how the land lies with a potential new squeeze. And nobody gets to see your cheeks flush.

This is an important point. Human communication is rarely transparent and truthful – we all find it convenient to tell fibs, mislead or hide things as the need arises.

A simple technology like SMS can take things even further – it’s easy to use, you don’t need to be elaborate with it and you can deal with new messages when it suits you. SMS is treasured as much for what it can help you avoid as for what it can enable you to do. It may be a simple technology but SMS actually represents a socially advanced method of communication.

It”s clear that ‘Facetime’ offers none of these benefits. It may be very technologically advanced but consumer research suggests it might actually be socially primitive. Most consumers don’t share the geek-engineer’s nostalgic fantasy of owning a video communication device like cartoon hero Dick Tracey.

Instead most people want something much more seductive and socially advanced. I want something that offers me and my mates more opportunities to flirt, fib, avoid one another, keep in touch and generally have a laugh. Something quite like SMS or Facebook, perhaps?

3 People read this post and left a comment

  • Mark Barber 9/06/2010

    I think there’s a lot of truth in this. And observing my 12 year old son’s behaviour when communicating remotely with his friends, I wonder if there isn’t a wider trend away from any form of verbal communication that is more likely to expose the communicator’s feelings, including phone calls. SMS, instant messaging, and Facebook are ‘safe’ communication routes, where it’s easier to appear confident and hide your disappointment, and you can be let down more gently.

  • Tweets that mention Will the iPhone 4G ‘Facetime’ be a video-calling flop? | Dollywagon -- Topsy.com 9/06/2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by What Mobile magazine, Mark W Webster and Jonathan Morris, Jason Brownlee. Jason Brownlee said: Even old research suggests the new iPhone 4G's 'Facetime' videocall feature will flop http://bit.ly/aVUaqD [...]

  • Frank 14/06/2010

    Where face time will be extremely valuable is with both married and separated parents, and grand parents. Families will be the ones to drive this market in it’s early stages, that is as long as it doesn’t cost them more to use it. The only real issue other than costs might be with our current state of WIFI. If you are out and about and receive a facetime call how are you expected to know the passwords of near by WIFI signals? Once a more complete wifi coverage is available and you can travel between connections uninterrupted this will be a real game changer. Anything less will limit it’s usage and it’s success.

    Lastly, forget these kids saying that they felt uncomfortable making face to face calls. People were very uncomfortable leaving messages on answering machines when they first came out!. But that wore off in a few years. Video calling has been around for a while and works well. The problem has been justifying paying more for service that is already over priced in most users eyes.

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