iPhone 4: FaceTime Mobile Video Conferencing

At WWDC, technologies come and go, but there’s one thing that never changes: One more thing…

The infamous “One More Thing” at WWDC is reserved for the most important, most revolutionary, most inspiring feature that Apple expects will change the world. This is the first “One More Thing” since 2007, when it was Safari for Windows, so Apple is pushing its newest technical wonder pretty hard as the feature to sell iPhone 4. From what we saw at the keynote, it’s getting it right.

FaceTime is the name of iPhone 4’s video chatting feature, and the WWDC keynote’s coverage of the feature makes it look pretty impressive. Steve Jobs invoked the full power of his reality distortion field when he opened the FaceTime demo, saying that “[he] grew up with Star Trek communicators, just dreaming about video calling… It’s real now.”

FaceTime promises to offer the first real, mobile video conferencing solution, and Apple is also positioning FaceTime as the first mobile video conferencing solution that will actually be easy to use.

While we obviously haven’t seen it in the wild yet, presumably FaceTime will allow any two iPhone 4 users to call each other up over a Wi-Fi network and have a face-to-face discussion using the iPhone 4’s shiny new forward-facing camera. There are a couple really important points here:

  1. iPhone 4 will have honest-to-goodness video conferencing, which is awesome.
  2. These conversations can take place over Wi-Fi, which means that they won’t eat up your cellular minutes or bandwidth

So, Apple has officially integrated a VoIP client into its newest product. (Eat your heart out, Vonage and Skype.)

However, as you’d expect for a feature that’s so new, there are still a lot of unknown quantities surrounding FaceTime. There was a lot of discussion regarding the features of iPhone 4’s new camera system — larger sensor, 5x digital zoom, better clarity — but it’s not clear if these improvements apply to both the forward-facing and back-facing cameras, or just the back-facing camera. Because it’s looking like the forward-facing camera will be used primarily for video conferencing, which will be highly compressed, it’s tempting to say that the forward-facing camera will be lower-quality than the back-facing camera, but we won’t know for sure until Apple releases full iPhone 4 technical specification. Also, Steve Jobs mentioned that “[Apple needs] to work a little bit with the cellular providers,” so FaceTime will be Wi-Fi only, through 2010 at least.

It’s still unclear what video quality will be like, and there was no discussion whatsoever of the APIs around FaceTime, so it’s hard to say if and how developers will be able to integrate FaceTime into their apps. Also, while the iOS 4 update will be available to everyone June 21, FaceTime will only work if both callers have an iPhone 4. And while it wasn’t mentioned in the keynote, it’s still possible that FaceTime will support more than 2-way calling. So this puzzle is still missing a few pieces, but they should get filled in over the next few days of WWDC.

So what does this mean for the Apple developer community? Well, the iOS 4 update will be available to the world on June 21, so you better believe that developers are poring over the iOS 4 documentation on video conferencing as we speak. The super geeks who already knew this was coming probably already have their ideas primed and ready, so expect to see some serious apps coming out in the next few months. Also, there are some features that people will want to see with FaceTime that they will pay for if they don’t already exist. For example, if FaceTime won’t let people record their conversations, some developer’s likely to get very rich off an app that will.

Regardless, though, if you’ve got some money lying around, you should invest in Dockers right now. Now that video conferencing is entering prime time, people working from home are going to be wearing pants a lot more.