After Apple unveiled its new iPhone 4 and "FaceTime" video calling feature yesterday, the usual whines from the peanut gallery were that Apple was copying a feature everyone else has shipped for years. You could make a video call on a Nokia phone when Clinton was still in office! Or something like that.
Needless to say, despite years of availability, mobile video calling is not a mainstream activity yet.
So why will Apple's "FaceTime" do better?
First and foremost, because it will finally be available on a device that will achieve sufficient saturation among groups. Video calling is a social function and therefore there is a network effect in play. If not enough people have the capacity to make video calls, then even the people with phones that support video calls are out of luck.
But think about all the peer groups — like mine — with iPhone penetration above 75 percent. That sort of saturation generally doesn't exist for other phones. As those groups upgrade to the new iPhone 4, video calling will be a reality for them. (And the requirement that both parties have iPhone 4s and not old iPhones or Macs or iPads could help Apple convert a few more customers.)
Second, because over wifi, FaceTime calls will look and sound good enough that they're worth making.
Apple's requirement that FaceTime calls are only over wifi is no doubt in some part to reassure carriers — FaceTime won't saturate their data networks with video calls, and won't simultaneously disrupt their .
But because FaceTime calls are over wifi, there should be sufficient bandwidth to make them actually look and sound good. (Versus over 3G, when they'd probably be choppy and drop out all the time.) So people might actually enjoy them and keep using them.
Third, because Apple probably made the calling and setup procedures much easier than any other phone maker.
We don't know this for sure, because like you, we've never owned a phone that could make video calls. But our experience with Apple software is that it is simple and "just works." We can't say that about most other mobile companies.
It'll obviously be a while before video calling replaces a significant portion of voice calling and text messaging. But because of the reasons cited, we anticipate that FaceTime won't be a complete flop.